Emily Lin Straightens the Curve
Emily Lin practiced ballet with perfect precision and flexibility as a young girl. At age eight, her mother noticed a small bump on her back and knew it was something to watch, especially since Emily’s older sister had already been diagnosed with scoliosis. Over the next few years, X-rays helped to monitor changes in Emily’s spine. Though she had no pain or physical limitation, her curve became more serious from fifth through seventh grade. “My curve was 60 degrees on one side and had increased rapidly over two years,” said Emily. “Though my sister did not need surgery, I grew up aware that I might need surgery.”
||Isador Lieberman, M.D.
Scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine, occurs most often during the growth spurt prior to puberty. According to Sara Brice, Program Director of the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Plano Scoliosis & Spine Tumor Center, “A large curve can progress and not only limit activity of the patient and cause pain, but it can interfere with heart and lung function later in life. For some teenagers, a brace can help prevent the curve from worsening but if the curve of the spine is very advanced, we might recommend corrective surgery.”
“We don’t often know the cause of scoliosis,” said Isador Lieberman, M.D., a spine surgeon on the medical staff at Texas Health Plano and Medical Director of the Scoliosis & Spine Tumor Center. “Yet there is a genetic component, and the familial tendency from mother to daughter is 25 percent.”
The Lin family learned about Lieberman through a friend at church. “This was the right fit,” said Emily. “Dr. Lieberman was very kind and compassionate and explained everything to me. I felt I was in good hands to know that patients from all over the country come to him.”
Through research, clinical trials and surgical innovation, Lieberman has been instrumental in advancing the use of robotic guidance technology in spinal surgery to correct scoliosis. He has treated people from all walks of life — from Olympic and professional athletes to firemen, policemen and teenagers. “Our philosophy at the Scoliosis Center is to provide the most appropriate and least invasive treatment,” said Lieberman. “We are able to use a robotic device during surgery to precisely target where to put screws … this means that we do not have to expose the spine as much and can minimize collateral tissue damage.”
Prior to Emily’s surgery, she participated in the Adolescent Scoliosis Support Group at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Plano. “Being able to connect with peers in a similar situation alleviated my fears going forward,” she said. “My dad also came and connected with other parents for support.”
At the time of her surgery in June of 2011, the "S" curve in Emily’s spine measured 80 degrees on the upper, or thoracic, curve and 60 degrees on the lower, or lumbar, curve, according to Lieberman, who explained, “There are many factors to consider prior to surgical intervention, yet if the degree of curvature is greater than 40 or 45 degrees, a person is at high risk for further progression.”
“I had nearly a right angle on one side, an especially severe case,” Emily said. Her 11-hour surgery involved bone grafts, fusing her spine from T4 to L4 and attaching metal rods. She was walking on the second day after surgery, followed by a one-week hospital stay and recovery over the next month — just in time for her to start her sophomore year at Berkner High School in Richardson, Texas.
“Having back surgery has given me a lot of confidence,” said Emily. “Now I’m not afraid of my own body. I cannot even tell that there’s a metal rod in my back and I have no pain whatsoever.” The only indicator of major back surgery is her scar.
Emily is able to do most anything other than contact sports, which she says is just not “a smart option.” She enjoys pilates, badminton and remains flexible with ease to touch her toes. The one thing she has to focus on is maintaining core strength.
This summer will be different for Emily. She plans to visit her grandparents, be a camp counselor and serve as a hospital volunteer.
“As a former patient, I want to help others who are sick,” she said.
Her words of advice to other teens: “Your parents and friends are there for you. Rely on them and don’t be afraid to pour your heart out. Connections are a big part of healing and recovery.”
Doctors on the medical staff practice independently and are not employees or agents of the hospital.