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Pioneering Spine Surgery Puts Competitive Cheerleader Back on the Mat

Vertebral body tethering surgery at Shriners Children's put Audrey back on the cheer mat, excelling at a performance level higher than ever before.

Audrey is a 12-year-old elite cheerleader who travels around the country year-round, competing with her team. She flips, twists and flies alongside some of the best junior cheerleaders in the nation.

But in 2020, Audrey’s cheerleading future was in doubt after doctors said she needed surgery to correct her scoliosis – a significant curve in her spine that was worsening as she grew. Shriners Children’s Northern California’s Medical Director of the Pediatric Spine Program and Orthopedic Spine Surgeon Rolando Roberto, M.D., performed surgery on Audrey’s spine in January 2021.

“When we went back for her appointment only six weeks after surgery, her team said she could get back to 100% activity. I couldn’t believe it,” said Audrey's mother Kimberly. “She could get back to the gym and even get back on a snowboard. Only eight weeks post-surgery, she was already throwing back handsprings.”

I hope others read this and see that scoliosis is something they can overcome!
Audrey, Northern California

When Audrey was 7 years old, her pediatrician noticed a significant curve to her spine during a regular check-up. She was diagnosed with scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine that occurs most often during the growth spurt just before puberty. Her pediatrician referred her for an evaluation at Shriners Children’s Northern California. Shriners Children’s physicians are internationally recognized for scoliosis care and treat more than 10,000 children with scoliosis each year.

“We started with bracing at Shriners Children’s pretty much immediately,” said Kimberly. “We tried our best, but it was very difficult for Audrey to keep the braces on. She was supposed to wear her brace all night and for most of the day, but she always had reasons to take it off.”

Between ages 7 and 11, Audrey visited Shriners Children’s Northern California every six months to be fitted for back braces as she grew. At age 9 during her growth spurt, her spinal curve worsened significantly.

“It even started affecting her self-confidence,” said Kimberly. “Audrey started only wearing baggy shirts to hide the curve in her upper back and protruding shoulder blade.”

When Audrey was 10, Dr. Roberto determined she was a strong candidate for a groundbreaking form of spinal surgery called anterior vertebral body tethering (VBT).

“Prior to Audrey’s surgery, we looked all over for stories of competitive gymnasts or tumblers who had this type of surgery,” said Kimberly. “We had trouble finding stories from patients like Audrey, and we wanted to know if she’d ever get back to competitive tumbling and cheer with full mobility.”

VBT is an alternative to traditional spinal fusion surgery for patients with moderately severe scoliosis who are still growing (curves between 50 and 65 degrees) and who have failed bracing. VBT corrects the developing curvature of the spine while preserving the spine’s mobility and range of motion in a more effective manner than fusion surgery.

“Audrey was a strong candidate for VBT because of her age and degree of curvature,” said Dr. Roberto. “Also, because Audrey cheers competitively, we knew preserving her spinal range of motion would be important to letting her continue her sport.”

The surgery went well, according to Dr. Roberto, and the child- and family-focused multidisciplinary approach to care and rehabilitation at Shriners Children’s Northern California aided Audrey's speedy recovery.

“Even though it was the height of the pandemic, and only one adult could be in her room at any time, they did so much to make her comfortable,” said Kimberly. “The child life team did an amazing job keeping her comfortable and distracting her with crafts, games, snacks and more. The physical therapists were so motivating. She was up and walking the halls so quickly.”

Today, 15 months post-surgery, Audrey is back on the mat, preparing to compete nationally at the All Star World Championship in Florida this year. Her Shriners Children’s team will continue to follow her growth until she’s 16 years old.

“Her range of motion is even better today because her curve is gone,” said Kimberly.

Audrey is grateful to her medical team for fixing her curve and preserving her ability to tumble and cheer. She hopes her story will help other children like herself who need scoliosis surgery and are wondering if they’ll ever get back in the gym.

“I hope others read this and see that scoliosis is something they can overcome,” said Audrey. “I hope this helps show people that there’s hope for getting back to 100% after scoliosis surgery.”

World Class Spine and Scoliosis Care

Audrey is back to competitive cheer and happy as ever!

Audrey hitting a cheer jump pose

Audrey hitting a cheer jump pose.

Audrey post surgery, sleeping

Audrey post surgery at Shriners Children's Northern California.

Audrey doing a technical leg lift, portrait of Audrey

Left: Audrey doing a technical leg lift. Right: A portrait of Audrey.

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