Alicia Ludwig didn’t want any more surgeries. She was tired of being cut up and knew if she went in to get her botched back surgery fixed, her entire spine would have to be fused. And that she just wasn’t ready for.
In her teens Alicia had two sacral and lumbar spinal fusion surgeries to correct her congenital scoliosis. She was born with some malformed vertebra in which an operation with a trained spine surgeon was supposed to fix. However, a few years after her first, she needed another procedure. Then, in her thirties, there was another.
When she awoke from her third surgery the first free vertebra above her fusion had shifted to the side of her spine and was creating a pretty intense listhesis. The surgeon claimed it wasn’t like that when he finished the surgery. After heavy deliberation Alicia eventually chose to not file a law suit because she didn’t know if she’d win and it would take a lot of energy. But most of all it wouldn’t fix her back situation.
The next few years after that last procedure were a of living hell for Alicia. She was in constant back and leg nerve pain. Her eyes were constantly bloodshot because of her lack of sleep and the serious fear of another surgery. Both she and her husband were pilots, but she had to stop flying because of medical safety issues with her back.
Now in her 40s, she had two daughters in high school and she didn’t want another surgery. She also didn’t want to be zoned out on pain meds while she recovered for a year and miss the last few years that her girls were living at home.
She’d seen every practitioner she knew to see all over the country, from Schroth therapists to Chiropractors to personal trainers. Since she had easy access to plane tickets, flying to therapy wasn’t an issue—she just couldn’t find anyone who could figure out her back. Thinking that she had lost all hope, she found a surgeon in town and had scheduled her surgery for a few months away. A friend of hers, who was a Pilates instructor I trained over 10 years ago, happened to tell her to see me for a lesson before she had her surgery.
On her first lesson, after she talked for at least 25 minutes about all the surgeries she’s had and all the practitioners she had been to who claimed they could get her out of pain but left her in more, I finally got her to lay down on the Reformer to attempt to do footwork. We were about 30 seconds in when I looked at her face and saw tears streaming out of her eyes. I calmly said to her “what do you feel?” She took a deep breath to calm the slight tremors happening all over her body, and after a while replied with “I feel fear.”
I calmly replied, “I’m OK if you continue to cry and feel fear, as long as you don’t feel physical pain. You’ve been in a lot of pain for a long time, and I don’t expect you to trust me yet. That takes time and I have to earn it. I will make no promises that I can fix you, but I know scoliosis and the human body really well. And I have a stubbornly strong will to help those suffering with scoliosis – I’d love to help you figure this out.” I could’ve washed my studio floors with the tears that were shed by her that day, but we got through our first lesson with no additional nerve pain.
Throughout the next few weeks of private lessons (one of which she brought her husband in and made him sit two feet from the Reformer with the intention of watching to make sure what I was doing wasn’t going to hurt her and confirm I wasn’t a fake. Yes, it was awkward.) we faced a dilemma. She was in no more pain then when she’d started, and we were starting to unweave the mess of muscle and nerve pain she was in—but she was scheduled for surgery in just a handful of weeks.
I’ve found that those living with scoliosis have a constant fear of surgery, no matter where they are on their journey. They fear what the surgeon will do to them on the table (including just being able to wake up and survive the surgery), and if their life will be any better after surgery. The weight of this immense fear is a heavy burden to carry and wreaks havoc on their emotional and physical bodily health.
Alicia wanted me to give her a definitive answer on whether I could keep her out of surgery or not, so she should know if she should go ahead and schedule it.
Over some great conversations during our lessons, I convinced her to simply push back the date of her surgery by a few months to see what we could accomplish. Then that date kept getting pushed back until she finally just canceled the surgery. That was a few years ago… and all thanks to Pilates and the love and encouragement of the amazing clients and staff at Spiral Spine Pilates in Nashville, TN.