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Vertebral Body Tethering (VBT) Surgery Allows Gabby to Return to Competitive Cheer

Gabby is back to competitive cheer after successful spine surgery!

There’s a special move in competitive cheerleading called a spike where an athlete balances on one leg and stretches the opposite leg straight up behind their back and neck.

The move requires extreme flexibility of the spine. It’s a spectacle when an athlete can pull it off, and it’s even more amazing when a 13-year-old has it mastered after having spine surgery. Shriners Children’s Northern California patient Gabby is that athlete. She is a competitive cheerleader who pushes herself to the limits on the mat and is always looking forward to her next competition. This spring Gabby and her cheer team will travel to Florida to compete at Summit-Varsity All-Stars, a national meet that teams must qualify for to attend.

“It’s the Super Bowl of cheer,” said Gabby.

Finding Shriners Children’s

Less than a year ago, Gabby feared having to give up cheerleading altogether. She had a severe case of scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine that was worsening as she grew.

Her primary pediatricians monitored her minor scoliosis from a young age, but it wasn’t until recently that her pain intensified. Gabby’s doctor warned that any further worsening of the curve in Gabby’s lower spine could affect her ability to walk. The doctor sat down with her and her mother, Kate, to deliver an urgent message.

“The doctor told me that her curve had progressed so quickly and was so bad that delaying surgery any longer might put her in a wheelchair or, even worse, threaten her life,” said Kate. “After that conversation, I cried and cried.”

Their primary physician gave them one recommendation, and that was to have the surgery performed at Shriners Children’s Northern California by medical director of the pediatric spine program, Rolando Roberto, M.D., a leader in the field of orthopedic spine surgery.

“He told me that if it was his daughter, he would send her to Dr. Roberto and explained to me how he was a pioneer in the type of surgery Gabby needed,” said Kate.

I’m really glad I had the surgery and it’s great being back in the gym with my friends.
Gabby, California

Life-changing Spine Surgery

Dr. Roberto performed a revolutionary scoliosis surgery called vertebral body tethering (VBT) that corrects a developing spine’s sideways curve while preserving the spine’s mobility and range of motion. VBT is a non-invasive alternative to traditional scoliosis surgery, or spinal fusion, that straightens a curve by permanently joining the bones in the spine.

Kate did extensive research about VBT before agreeing to surgery. During her research, Kate stumbled across a story about another Shriners Children’s patient, Audrey, who was a competitive cheerleader and underwent VBT with Dr. Roberto. She is back on the mat and cheering at a higher level than ever before.

“It was nice to know that someone just like me had gone through this surgery and was back to cheerleading without any pain,” said Gabby. “After reading it, my anxiety kind of went away and I knew that I was going to be okay.”

Gabby first met with Dr. Roberto and her Shriners Children’s team nine short months ago. Dr. Roberto noticed that her growth plates were growing and there was a tight window of time before they closed, so he shifted the entire surgery schedule to put her at the top of the list. Gabby was an excellent candidate for VBT and had her surgery a few weeks later.

“It was a long and complicated surgery because her spine was almost touching her diaphragm,” said Kate. “They needed to enter through her side but also through her abdomen. But it went well and Gabby was up and moving as soon as they let her.”

Despite a very long operation and because of the advanced nature of the VBT technique, Gabby was released to return home just 48 hours after surgery. Gabby was cleared for all activity just five weeks post-surgery.

“I threw my first back handspring the day after I was cleared,” said Gabby. “I entered the gym with a new sense of confidence I didn’t even know I had.”

Cheering Better than Ever

Just seven short months post-op, Gabby is competing with her team and is getting ready for Summit-Varsity All-Stars in Florida. She is grateful to be back in the gym pulling all of her favorite body positions like scales, needles and spikes.

“My back doesn’t hurt anymore,” said Gabby. “My knees and hips are in alignment so those don’t hurt anymore either, and I can do all the same things as before, plus more. I’m really glad I had the surgery, and it’s great being back in the gym with my friends.”

Gabby's Inspiring Patient Journey

View Transcript

[Gabby's Story]

Kate: Hi, my name is Kate.

Gabby: And my name is Gabby.

Kate: And Gabby has been a Shriners Children's Hospital patient since July 2022. So Gabby was diagnosed with scoliosis at eight years old, and we have been following her journey since then. She was braced for two and a half years. The only option for us left with the aggressive progression of her curve was to do surgery. So I did a lot of research because surgery was really not something that we were on board with because Gabby is an all-star cheerleader, and that is her biggest passion in her world. Tumbling and flexibility are everything to her, and spinal fusion just wouldn't give her that flexibility that she needed to keep up with the sport that she loved. But there's a wonderful thoracic specialist at Shriners Children's Hospital in Sacramento. His name is Dr. Roberto. He does this groundbreaking procedure called vertebral body tethering, known as VBT, that will give your daughter the same correction as a fusion, but will allow her to have that flexibility that she needed with a flexible cord to continue to do tumbling and cheerleading.

Because of Shriners Children's Hospital and all of the amazing staff, Gabby's doing what she loves and she's excelling more than ever. She has more confidence because she's not dealing with body image issues from the scoliosis. She's not dealing with pain every day, and she's able to just push forward in the sport she loves.

Gabby: Thank you, Shriners.

Kate: Thank you, Shriners.

[Shriners Children's Northern California logo]

Correcting the Curve

Dr. Rolando used advanced surgery techniques to give Gabby a bright future in cheerleading.

Gabby holding needle pose

Gabby holding one of the most challenging stunts in cheerleading after VBT surgery – a needle

gabby with her mom

Gabby and her mother at the hospital

gabby with pre surgery photo

Gabby with a picture of her pre-surgery spinal curve

gabby smiling in her cheer jacket

Gabby at the hospital in her cheer jacket

Next Steps

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