Phippsburg teen battles scoliosis

Therapy to straighten her back gave Gina Iacovetto a new perspective on life

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Gina Iacovetto has been walking around Phippsburg all summer.

She knows the paved and dirt streets well. She has visited the park and the train tracks frequently.

She has seen sunsets, felt the glare of the afternoon sun and sweated in the morning while neighbors were getting ready for work.

For Iacovetto, who is starting her sophomore year at Fort Lewis College in Durango, all the miles she logged this summer had a purpose: to help her heal from major back surgery.

Iacovetto has scoliosis, a condition in which a person's spine curves laterally. Eventually, the condition can make it difficult for a person to walk, stand up straight and even breathe.

After doctors tried unsuccessfully to straighten her back with braces, Iacovetto had to resort to the last option: a surgical procedure in which two titanium rods, each about a foot long, were inserted alongside her spine and then cranked down to pull it into a straight line.

She had the surgery this summer, and now that she's improving, she can look back on the process and feel thankful that her spine is straighter. Before the surgery, she said she was just scared.

"I just got really scared and worried," she said. "I've never had any surgery in my life. I was just terrified."

Scoliosis of some degree affects about one out of every 10 people. It usually develops during adolescence and is more common in girls than boys.

A person without the condition has a curved spine when viewed from the side and a straight spine when viewed from the back. When someone has scoliosis, their spine looks opposite: it's straight when viewed from the side and curved when viewed from the back.

When Gina Iacovetto was in middle school, she underwent a routine scoliosis screening. She stood in line and had her back looked at, and a nurse told her that one of her shoulder blades stuck out a little more than the other.

She said she didn't think much of it at the time, but when a doctor recommended that she get checked by a specialist in Denver, she was a little more concerned.

Several X-rays of her back showed the cause of the uneven shoulder blades: Her spine, when viewed from her back, was curved like the letter "S." Iacovetto learned she had scoliosis.

"I was surprised. I didn't think it was really all that bad and then I saw the X-ray and I thought, 'Oh, that's bad,'" she said.

For Iacovetto, now 19, that discovery was the start of a long process that included wearing braces for several years and making trips to Denver a couple of times a year.

Then, before her senior year in high school, she learned she might have to undergo back surgery.

On May 12, her parents took her to Denver for the surgery. She never saw the rods before they were put in her back or knew exactly what the procedure would do: she said she didn't want to know.

Her memories before surgery include lying in her bed in a hotel room in Denver the night before, feeling hesitant about the procedure.

"That was the big thing -- just thinking, what if something goes wrong?" she said.

She remembers going into the operating room, switching tables and then waking up to her parents' smiles and words of, "You're done, you made it," she said.

For the next five days, Iacovetto worked on basic physical therapy. First she had to lie flat on her back for 24 hours. Then physical therapists rolled her side to side, and then she had to roll to the side and sit up -- one of the most painful things she has done in her life.

Her father, Elvis Iacovetto, said he couldn't help but admire his daughter's determination through the process.

"Even in the hospital when she was hurting like hell, the nurses would say, 'OK, are you ready to be rolled over?' and she would grit her teeth and say, 'OK,'" he said.

When Gina Iacovetto returned home, the walking began. Walking, according to her physical therapists, was the best therapy.

First she made it to the end of the walkway outside her home. Then she made it to the end of her driveway. Then to the end of the block, the end of the street, the end of town.

Before she knew it, Iacovetto was walking a few miles three times a day. Her mother kept her company, and the time went by quickly.

And it gave her a new perspective on the town.

"I've lived in this town my whole life," Iacovetto said. "I've seen the town. ... I've never really walked a lot."

It also gave her a new perspective on life. While at Children's Hospital in Denver, Iacovetto said she saw a lot of people much younger than she was taking on medical conditions more serious than hers.

"I was thinking, heck, I'm an older kid. I don't know how all of these younger kids can go through this," she said.


-- To reach Susan Bacon, call 871-4203

or e-mail sbacon@steamboatpilot.com

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