When Leah Potton’s left hip started to stick out three years ago, her mother was immediately concerned.
“As soon as I realised her right shoulder blade was looking distorted, and she seemed to be getting a rib hump as well, I began to worry,” explains mum Dawn Quinn.
“I developed a slight curvature of the spine when I was a teenager, which is still causing me back pain now.”
After 18 months and several visits to the family’s GP practice in Lingfield, Surrey, Leah, now 15, was referred to St Thomas’ Hospital, London, to see an orthopaedic surgeon.
He confirmed Dawn’s suspicions, diagnosing Leah with scoliosis – an abnormal curvature of the spine mainly affecting adolescent girls – and recommending spinal fusion surgery to correct it.
After a year on the waiting list, Leah’s curve was getting worse.
So when Dawn’s husband got a new job with private medical insurance covering pre-existing conditions, they booked a consultation at The Portland Hospital with Consultant Orthopaedic and Spinal Surgeon, Mr Tom Ember.
Mr Ember operates on around five scoliosis cases a week at The Portland, Guy’s and St Thomas’ and Great Ormond Street Hospitals – as many as most surgeons see in a month.
He was in no doubt that Leah needed immediate surgery.
“Patients with a spinal curve measuring more than 50 degrees are likely to see an increase of another one or two degrees a year,” he explains.
“By the time I saw Leah, her curve already measured 60 degrees. Left to progress further, it would have become more and more deforming – driving her left shoulder down, leading to severe thoracic back pain and affecting her lung function.”
Mr Ember was able to book her in for the procedure almost straight away and seven weeks later, she was in the operating theatre, undergoing posterior spinal fusion surgery.
Stripping back her muscles to expose her spine, Mr Ember individually de-rotated each twisted vertebrae segment, using metal screws to fix them to two centralised rods, before fusing them all together with a bone graft.
“Fifteen is the perfect age for this operation, as the majority of growing has already been done,” he explains.
“Complications are rare, and reduced even further in units like The Portland, where there are state-of-the-art operating facilities, spinal cord monitoring and intensive care.
“Within just three hours we were able to achieve a lovely correction for Leah, which has virtually eliminated her curve. She should go on to lead an entirely normal life with no further complications.”
Dawn had prepared herself for Leah’s recovery to be tough, and the results far from perfect, so she was shocked by how quick and successful her surgery was.
“When I saw her shoulder protrusion and rib hump had virtually disappeared, and the scar halfway down her back was so discreet, I actually cried,” she says.
“Within 24 hours she was sitting up in bed, eating a full English breakfast and asking if she could get her ears pierced again.”
After five nights in hospital, Leah was able to return home, where she’ll spend a further four weeks resting and slowly increasing her strength and mobility, before returning to school.
“We’ll assess her fusion with X-rays at six weeks, six months and then a year,” says Mr Ember.
“There’ll be no lifting, carrying or sports for the first six to nine months, but after that, she’ll be back to normal activities. Even skiing or bungee jumping if she fancies.”
Leah is already looking forward to her curve-free future. “I used to cover up with baggy clothes and get stabbing back pain after a few hours on my feet,” she says. “Now I’ll be able to keep up when I’m out with my friends, and wear whatever I want.”
Before Surgery After Surgery