Mia Schloegel was 11 when they found the curve in her spine.
She was at her yearly pediatrician’s visit when her uncle — also her doctor — had her lean over, in a standard childhood check for scoliosis. “He noticed I had kind of a hump on one side and not the other,” said Schloegel, a sign of the rib cage rotation that often occurs when the spine is curved side-to-side. At her uncle’s urging, she and her mother went to get an X-ray at a Kansas City hospital that same day.
The news was a shock to the sixth grader. “I remember crying in the doctor’s office, because I didn’t think there was anything wrong with me,” said Schloegel, now 21. But all of a sudden, a surgeon was recommending that she have her spine fused together. For decades, fusion has been the default surgical approach for severe curves: A permanent network of screws, hooks, and wires would attach her misaligned vertebrae to two metal rods, holding them in position as bone grafts took hold. The middle span of her spine would turn into a solid, ossified pole.