Nichole is standing tall!

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“It was best Christmas present ever,” says Nichole, smiling coyly, describing the surgery she underwent in late November at Epworth Richmond for her severe scoliosis. “I am looking forward to walking properly, doing things like playing badminton and volleyball. Having this surgery has given me confidence, self-worth and a great testimony to tell the world.”

When Nichole, 11, first arrived to us from Bago City in the Philippines, nobody realised just how severe her condition was.

Surgery for scoliosis is not usually undertaken until a child has fully developed. Initially, we planned to bring Nichole to Australia to be fitted with an orthopaedic brace to prevent further damage to her spine and then to potentially bring her back for surgery when she was older. However, when the medical team discovered just how badly Nichole’s spine had deteriorated, they were shocked.

Nichole’s surgeon, Associate Professor Yi Yang says that Nichole’s case was one of the more severe cases of scoliosis he has dealt with recently. 

“Most scoliosis cases are mild. In these cases, the curvature of the spine is less than 25 degrees, and it usually doesn’t require active intervention.  But Nichole’s spine had two major curves – both measuring approximately 90 degrees, so it was very severe,” explains Associate Professor Yang.

“This was all taking a huge toll on Nichole. She was having trouble walking. As her spine continued to curve, her right shoulder had moved up quite high, and she was tilting off her left-hand side. Her organs were starting to become compressed, and her lung functionality was being compromised.”

Associate Professor Yang holds up an X-ray of Nichole’s spine pre-surgery.

Given the severity of her condition, urgent surgery was the best way forward. However, COVID-19 struck, and as with many  things in 2020, Nichole’s surgery was put on hold.

As Nichole (and all the kids) went into lockdown at The Retreat, it was a perfect time to focus on improving her overall health and wellbeing. With Nichole weighing in at just 22kgs, staff at The Retreat concentrated on cooking Nichole’s favourite meals, loading them up with nutritious calories to help her build up to a healthier weight.

Finally, as Melbourne emerged out of lockdown, Nichole’s life-changing surgery took place on 28 November.

Pre-surgery with her cousin Phoebe.

A surgical team of 10, led by Associate Professor Yang, undertook the complex operation which was completed in just over five hours. First, controlled cuts were made to the bones making up Nichole’s spine, to make it flexible. Next, guided by computer-aided navigation, 23 spinal screws were placed into Nichole’s vertebrae, within millimetres of her spinal cord – to act as anchors to connect up to the rods. Finally, two titanium rods were attached to straighten her spine via these anchor points.

Nichole lost about a litre of blood during the surgery – for a girl of Nichole’s size, this represented about half her body’s volume. Thankfully, she did not require a blood transfusion, as the blood lost was suctioned, washed by a cell salvage team and then returned back to her body.

Everyone was stunned to see just how well Nichole coped with the surgery. She was out of bed the next day, and within a few more days, she was walking and even smiling for the news cameras documenting her journey! We couldn’t be prouder of this brave young girl!

After a week’s stay in hospital, Nichole was given the all-clear to return to The Retreat, in time to experience her first Australian Christmas.

Now almost two months on, standing tall and straighter, Nichole couldn’t be happier. Her scars have healed, and she is working on building her strength as her spine realigns and adjusts.

Nichole says that she cannot wait to go back home to her family and begin the new phase of her life. While more rehabilitation needs to take place before she returns to the Philippines, for now, she is focused on her recovery and enjoying precious time with all her friends at The Retreat.



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