Straightening the Spine: The Risk, Cost and Necessity of Change

We would rather be ruined than changed,
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.

— W. H. Auden

Barbie as you've never seen her

Barbie, posing post scoliosis surgery. Mock-up for the full-body cast my mom wore for 9 months.

One whiff of isopropyl alcohol, and I am hurtled back to the summer of 1974, the year I learned my first lessons about the costs of change. Though I was too young to know it then, I was destined to learn that summer and over the years to follow, just how necessary to our survival ––but how painful, risky and costly––change is.

Those were hard and tactile lessons, as hard as the shoulder-to-groin body cast my mother wore for nine months, and as tactile as her waxy scars she allowed me to touch. Her “Frankenstein scars” as she called them, came from traction rods that had run through her knees, and from the four screws that had been drilled into her skull. The longer, purplish incisions that snaked down her spine and all over her torso came from surgical scalpels.

My nightly job was to swab with big wads of cotton the visible scars that were still healing, as well as the sore patches of skin around my mom’s arms, hips and at her jaw line.  These were being rubbed raw by every one of her awkward movements against the pumice-stone edge of plaster.

Mom’s change was no figure of speech. Her change was her figure, literally. She had undergone a complete restructuring of her spine to correct severe scoliosis, which series of surgeries that I’ll describe here, if you have the stomach for them, saved her life.  Straightforward as that.

scoli charts

The collapsing and twisting of her spine (begun at puberty and exacerbated by four pregnancies) was far more than some mere cosmetic bother. No, she couldn’t wear most clothes from stores, as they didn’t fit her curved back.  And no, she couldn’t sit in a normal church pew without shoving two hymnals under the hip that was three inches higher than the other.  The real problem was that the scoliosis had advanced to where her lungs and other internal organs were severely compromised. Even her thoracic cavity was showing signs of being cramped.  She didn’t have full use of both lungs.  There was pressure on her heart. Doctors vigorously encouraged intervention.

But this, remember, was the ‘70’s.  The surgical procedures for correcting spinal collapse were still experimental. Surgery was risky. And my parents, university instructors, were of modest means.  Surgery was also costly. But the risks and costs of not undergoing the change were greater than the risks and costs of not making the change at all.

Off to grandmas house with my baby brother, Aaron

Off to grandma’s house with my baby brother, Aaron. Note the length of my Mom’s kaftan.

And so this was going to be our Summer of Change.  My mom was going to be rebuilt.  Lee Majors was The Bionic Man on TV at the same time, and so the idea of a Bionic Mom was appealing.  We four children were farmed out to relatives, and my dad and mom drove to Minneapolis, tugging a camper trailer across the ominous aridity of America’s Midwest.  In St. Paul, my mom was admitted to the hospital.

legs scoli

There, on July 1st, she was put in traction. This meant that she lay flat on her back, skewered through the knees with steel rods, to which a pulley system threaded overhead was attached. At the end of the system were tied progressively heavy sand bags. They stretched her downward, toward the foot of her bed.  At the same time, she was fitted with a metal halo, literally screwed into her skull at four points, and to that halo, another pulley contraption was tethered, and sandbags stretched her to the top of the bed.


For six weeks she lay in traction. She never lifted or turned her head. Never twisted to her side without two nurses’ assistance. Never went to a toilet or looked out her window or shook out her hair. Never as much as bent her legs or reached down to scratch her shin. Immobility tested her patience, if not her sanity. The threat of blood clots was constant. But in recounting those long weeks, she focuses on watching (through pulley cords and from a mirror positioned above her hospital bed) Nixon’s televised resignation and his famous waving departure on a helicopter. “He looked as miserable as I felt at the time,” she said, “but more stiff.”

From that lateral position and after six weeks, she was hoisted directly onto a mobile operating table, wheeled into the O.R., and surgeons made a long curving incision across her rib cage. They removed a rib, ground it up, and like master chefs, kept the ground rib to the side like a bowl of dry oatmeal.  For later mixing.

Then they made another incision, this time along the crest of her pelvis. From there, they dug and scraped, harvesting more meal. That bowl they also set aside. They would need her own bone mortar for packing in around the base of her spine when they performed the final and major reconstructive surgery.  It involved making a long incision down the entire length of her spinal column, laying the flesh open, then packing like sand in a sand castle her own bone meal in and around the lumbar region of her spine, then bolting two long and delicate titanium (Harrington) rods to her spine and, in essence, jacking her up like a car on lifts.

Risk accompanied every phase of this surgery.  Just how serious the risk was, was brought home dramatically when sirens went off in her hospital room.  Her roommate, just returned from the same surgery mom was to undergo the next morning, had gone into cardiac arrest. Surrounded by screaming family and frantic but ultimately helpless doctors and nurses, the roommate died. Mom was surreptitiously wheeled out of her own room.

In the hallway that night, against the accompaniment of wailing and thick terror, my parents determined that in spite of every known risk, Mom would still undergo the surgery.

rib scar

back scar

Chrysalis, anyone?

Chrysalis, anyone?

I recall when my Mom came home. She was wearing a jersey red polka top and white pants grown suddenly too short, under which fit that bulky full body cast with its chin-high collar. The airplane crew drove her to us in one of those golf carts in which she sat primly, robotically, artificially erect. She was taller, thinner, weaker.

welcome home

But she was stronger. She was changed. And although to this very day her bionic spine sets off the occasional airport security system everywhere she travels, she travels. She’s around to do so. If you were to ask her now, on what is nearly the 40th anniversary of our Summer of Change, I am certain she would say that every fear and every violet scar was more than worth it.

The same kaftan, four inches shorter. And the worlds' most sullen blonde teenager. Whut?

The same kaftan, four inches shorter. And the world’s most sullen blonde teenager. Whut?

Reflecting on the changes I’ve faced in my life, I’m drawn to Auden’s keen assertion that, for the most part, we’d rather be ruined (let our spines collapse within us) than be changed (undergo risk-laden and costly improvement.) Many of us, myself included, sometimes accept the deadly or deadening way-things-are, only because change fills us with dread. Or it’s at least kinda scary. We’d rather die of the kind of fear that cramps the torso, leaving us only one lung-full of air, and room for only half a heart, than climb the “cross of the moment” and discover new life.

I didn’t know back when I was rubbing my mom’s chafe-marks with medicinal alcohol that one day I’d inherit a vertebrae or two of her bionic spine.  But I see I have.  We are anticipating our own Summer of Change. No life-altering surgeries (we can only hope) but some big realignments, including launching another book, sending a returned missionary daughter back to university, saying goodbye to a son when he heads off on a 2-year volunteer mission, and, yes, taking a new job in a new country.

I’m stiffening that spine. And if things get rough, sniffing isopropyl alcohol.

Less sullen then, but less strong

Less sullen then, but also less strong

16 thoughts on “Straightening the Spine: The Risk, Cost and Necessity of Change

  1. The sort of courage your mother displayed by having that surgery inspires me. Maybe I can be more brave about the smaller challenges that I deal with in life. Loved this.

  2. Dear Melissa,

    This is the first time I react to your blog, which I always read with great pleasure. I react now because this new blog reminds me of everything that happened when I was in my teens. I have had similar operations for my scoliosis and a plaster cast as well. My first operation was much earlier in time: in 1960 (after several non invasive treatments) and I was much younger 12/ 13 years old. At that time an international well known orthopedic surgeon In the Netherlands performed operations taking bone splinters of the shin (leg) and used them as support to straigthen my back. After > six month in bed with a similar cast as your Barbie doll, I was allowed to get up again, but I had to wear an awful whole body corset for years…. Later in 1977 when I was in training for my medical degree an orthopedic surgeon send me to a colleague in a specialised hospital because my back could become much better than it was after the first operation. I had a similar operation than as you mother, without the bones taken away. Had to wear a plaster cast for 8 months, but I was able to work (teaching fysiotherapists). Scars? yes a lot. Sad that I couldn’t play after the operation as my brothers and sisters? sometimes. It trained me to be patient, and to understand my patients better, what it means to lose abilities or undergo treatment. But the best part of it was that I have read hundreds of books with stories and informative issues. And still after all these years I gives me so much more knowledge than my peers. Thank you for sharing your mothers story,

    Kind regards, Ines Sleeboom-van Raaij consultant psychiatrist for the deaf and hard of hearing The Netherlands

    Op zaterdag 22 maart 2014 heeft Melissa Writes of Passage het volgende geschreven:

    > Melissa Dalton-Bradford posted: “We would rather be ruined than > changed, We would rather die in our dread Than climb the cross of the > moment And let our illusions die.– W. H. AudenOne whiff of isopropyl > alcohol, and I am hurtled back to the summer of 1974, the year I learned my > first les”

    • Dear Ines-
      I’m grateful you have come by and commented. The procedure you endured sounds simply torturous, and it makes me shudder to think of, what? bone splinters being taken from the tibia and fibula? Unbelievable. What strikes me and will stay with me for along time, is your capacity to view your years of “disability” and “limitation” as opportunity for reflection, intellectual expansion, deepening, and a foundation for your professional future. That, as much as the physical impairments you’ve obviously dealt with, is the sign of courage. Beautiful. So glad to meet you.–Melissa

  3. Wow — really scary for a kid to have all that happen to her mother. Also, such a scary condition, one that afflicts loved ones in our family as well. As to traction, I know something about that, having spent about 6 weeks in traction myself as a kid to treat a femur broken while skateboarding.

    • John–Skateboarding. . .that seems scary to me!

      Somehow, my mother was nonplussed about her surgery, at least as I recall it, she faced it and endured the months in a cast with low drama and little discussion. The continued to drive us all everywhere for our various music and ballet lessons, although she has to practically recline in order to even get into the drier’s seat. And at 5 months-in-cast, made herself a custom concert gown that camouflaged the plaster she was packing, to sing the soprano lead in a performance of Mendelssohn’s “Elijah.”

      My mother. Incredible. And I thought it was all normal.

      So nice to find you here, John. Thanks for coming by—


  4. Wow! That bygone summer of change is something else, and your upcoming one too! Incredible! I can’t wait to hear where you’ll land next! When I was a senior in high school with a broken femur from a soccer game, I got to test drive the new procedure to avoid body casting and traction. Phew! Steal rod through the center of the pieced together femur and screws in my hip and knee. Had to have it removed a few years later because my body rejected the metal inside me. I admire your mother’s courage and your family’s resilience! I recently picked up Pamela Druckerman’s “Bringing up Bébé” and it was fascinating to hear some familiar stories from your time in Paris. Now I’m craving a fresh pain au chocolat!

  5. Melissa, what tremendous challenges you have faced through the years. For your mom, such a traumatic experience it must have been going through that extensive surgery and recovery that followed. As difficult as those times were it was likely a character building foundation to prepare you for things to come years later. That may be a far-reaching assumption on my part yet I see what you have gone through with the loss of Parker and can’t help but feel that your early years gave you the strength to cope with such a terrible loss. Once again I marvel at your story here.

  6. I’ve just stumbled on this helpful article about the current and unconventional methods of treating Scoliosis. Although this post I’ve written is an allegory of sorts, I wanted to include this link, too, for those who might come here for info on scoliosis. I find it interesting:

  7. I have cried half the night after reading this. Can’t stop shaking. This is exactly what I went through in 1983. I was 13, an embarrassment to my family, scared, alone and in pain. I made it only to find more abuse later in life. My rods broken, the support for my spine gone, I am facing it again as my spine curls once more. I am afraid of it as are my doctors as removing old hardware complicates things, but I don’t want to curl up into a helpless ball fighting for breath and not really living. I will fight and face the fear and change. Thank you for posting this.

    • Dear Leslie-
      You are a walking miracle. I’d be humbled and honored to meet you in person. Courage and tenacity are your real rods, invisible to the world but holding you up! That you have suffered humiliation, isolation and rejection (not to mention pain, abuse and uncertainty) because of something entirely beyond your control makes my heart cramp for you.

      I can help, I hope, by praying that you’ll be carried both physically and emotionally through the coming change, and that there will be maybe two key people alongside you to see you as you stand even taller.

      Will you come back here and leave a comment when you have made that next , life-expanding step?

      Blessing to you, Leslie.

  8. Melissa, revisit this writing with equally staggering response as my initial read. This horrific experience your mother endured took me back to an experience I had on one occasion only and for a matter of fifteen minutes of my life which scared me beyond description, though by no comparison to what you mom went through.

    I was suffering severe back pain and was sent to a physical therapist who, upon examining my spinal column, declared my facet joints completely rotated to one side, thus the agony I was suffering. She recommended “trying” a stretch therapy at fifteen minute interviews which literary meant strapping me tightly to an elevated bed and at intervals pulleys would mechanically stretch my entire length so as to take pressure off my spine.

    The short of it was the extreme anxiety or fear that overwhelmed me as this contraption of medical science very gradually pulled at my extremities until I thought I would pop apart like a New Year’s Eve noise maker! The physio moved away to tend to other patients after brief observation. She rested a red power switch unit clasped in my hand and noted that if I could not withstand the experience or suffered any worsening pain to simply squeeze the “kill switch”!

    Needless to say I was milliseconds from shutting the contraption down and did experience severe pain in the process. I was told that I would feel like a train wreck for a couple of days afterward but that ‘discomfort’ would ease. We would “discuss the treatment continuation” on my next visit. Discuss we did and that was the end of that!

    Your dear mother truly endured and under incredible circumstances…great courage. That she still had children is amazing. Thank you once again for sharing this with us.

    My best to you.

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