As high school ballerina Helena Roberts pliéd across the stage in March, there was no indication of the years she spent suffering from scoliosis.
Helena, 18, owes the opportunity to dance as the fairy godmother in the Pine Crest School’s production of Cinderella to a spinal fusion surgical procedure she underwent at Miami Children’s Hospital two years ago.
The Coral Springs ballerina first learned when she was 11 of her scoliosis, a condition characterized by abnormal curving of the spine. A dancer since age 2, the diagnosis came around the time she was in a different production of Cinderella.
“I worried about whether I would even be able to perform in my senior show in the future,” she said.
For five years, Helena wore a back brace to prevent the curvature of her S-shaped spine from worsening.
The brace was uncomfortable and she still had back pains. When she took off the brace to dance, her curved spine was noticeable through her leotard.
“It wasn’t hard to dance, but it was difficult because my torso would look so different during class,” she said.
But her curve became so severe in February 2012 that it was determined that the brace could not help. Roberts and her doctor, Dr. Harry Shufflebarger, decided that a procedure that would fuse her vertebrae together with screws attached to two titanium rods would benefit her.
Shufflebarger is a pediatric spinal surgery and scoliosis specialist at Miami Children’s Hospital and performs the surgery using screws to adhere the titanium rods to the vertebrae. Those with a curve more than 50 degrees are often recommended for the surgery, which will straighten the spine and prevent any further progression.
“The surgery gets the patients out of brace,” said Shufflebarger. “It is a disfiguring condition, and the procedure changes their body shape significantly. It really adds to their self-esteem and confidence.”
Helena’s mother, Angelica, says that her daughter benefited tremendously from the surgery.
“Her posture is amazing, and the pain is gone,” she said. “She got right back into dancing when she recovered.”
Given how far the college-bound dancer has come since she was last involved in a production of Cinderella, she was ecstatic to receive a star role in her senior year show two years after the surgery.
“It was a really special show for me,” she said.
The procedure has a 99 percent rate of correction without complication at Miami Children’s, Shufflebarger says.
At Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood, where they also specialize in scoliosis surgeries, the success rate is also over 90 percent.
“There are just a few hospitals that specialize in the procedure,” said Dr. Michael Jofe, hospital chief of staff. “The others do it sporadically.”
Jofe, an orthopedic surgeon, has been a witness to many innovations in scoliosis corrective surgeries since he first began performing the procedure in 1989. Surgeons now monitor the spine electronically during surgery and attach screws instead of hooks to better fix the titanium rods to the spine.
Besides the cosmetic benefits, Jofe says the surgery prevents the spine from interfering with the function of the heart and lungs.
There are several types of scoliosis that can be candidates for the surgery. The cause of the most common type of scoliosis, idiopathic, is unknown, but there are other forms that result from birth defects or muscle and nerve disorders.
One type is called congenital scoliosis, which Key Biscayne resident Marco Rojas Jr., 9, was diagnosed with at 18 months old. One side of his spine grew, while the other did not because it was malformed. His physical appearance was affected because of it.
At its worst, his spine was curved more than 50 degrees before he underwent an eight-hour surgery in 2010 to receive 11 titanium screws and two rods to straighten his spine.
Also a patient of Shufflebarger’s, his surgery enabled him to make a full recovery.
“The surgery helped him make a recovery without going through a lot of pain and suffering because of braces and different other apparatus,” said his father, Marco Rojas Sr.
Within six months, the younger Marco was back to being active at school and around his home in Key Biscayne.
Now, Marco plays basketball and runs cross-country at his school, St. Agnes Academy in Key Biscayne. Weekends are spent golfing and fishing.
Last November, the third-grader even came in second place when he ran a 5K marathon in Key Biscayne with 50 other kids in his age group.
“Nobody would know that he went through such a procedure,” Rojas said. “It was incredibly successful. We are so thankful.”