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High-tech surgery helps young patient with severe scoliosis

Posted on May. 9, 2019 ( comments)
Devin Bushnell
Devin Bushnell the day of his scoliosis surgery (left) and after.

Since his birth, 12-year-old Devin Bushnell has endured multiple surgeries and treatments for a range of complex conditions, including severe scoliosis.

But Devin has remained cheerful throughout, according to his parents, Debra Bushnell-Kernan and James Kernan — and especially so since undergoing a new spine-straightening surgery that is literally enabling him to “walk taller.”

“Devin is always the one cheering up the other kids having surgery at the hospital,” says Kernan. “He has a great spirit.”

“Devin has many medical issues,” says Bushnell-Kernan. “He is a special-needs child, with delayed gross and fine motor skills, and he has the mental age of a 5 year old.”

As he grew, Devin’s scoliosis (curvature of the spine) worsened, requiring intervention. By 2017, he had a 125-degree curvature of the spine, making it hard for him to walk, sit comfortably and even interact with others.

“We tried everything,” says his mother. “Body casts, back braces, you name it. We finally agreed to do the surgery in February 2018.”

The surgery, performed by Mary Bridge pediatric orthopedic surgeons Rebecca Whitesell, MD, MPH, and Nicholas Rajacich, MD, involved placing magnetic rods (called MAGEC rods) and screws in the child’s spine that, as he grew, would be adjusted using external magnets rather than invasive surgery.

“This surgery is for patients who are still growing and have a large curvature,” says Dr. Whitesell. “Not until the curve is bigger than 50 degrees do we recommend surgery. Devin’s curve was exceptionally large, so he was a good candidate. “

Still, Dr. Whitesell notes, “As with any spinal surgery, there is always the potential for spinal cord damage. His parents were scared.”

The first surgery in Feb. 2018 had to be stopped when it appeared that Devin’s spinal cord might be damaged and there was the possibility that he might become paralyzed from the waist down. Devin was admitted to the intensive care unit for observation.

“It was devastating,” says his mother. “They thought he might be paralyzed. He couldn’t walk out of the hospital.”

Fortunately, Devin began to get movement in his left leg and was later discharged home. After several months of physical therapy and home rehabilitation, Devin fully recovered.

Then, in April 2018, Dr. Whitesell shared some exciting news with Devin’s parents about a new robotic-assisted surgery that would greatly reduce the chance of spinal cord or nerve damage while the screws were being implanted.

The procedure had just been approved for use at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital, and the robot had been purchased with funding from the Mary Bridge Brigade, a nonprofit organization that supports the hospital.

“This technology, which we’ve been using since June 2018, is called Mazor robotic-assisted surgery,” says Dr. Whitesell. “Before surgery, we take a CT scan of the spine and plan screw placement, thus allowing corrections of the scoliosis as safely as possible. The robot allows for the most precise placement of the screws.”

Mary Bridge Children’s is the only children’s hospital in the Pacific Northwest to offer this type of surgery.

Devin’s parents agreed to the surgery, which took place on Aug. 28, 2018.

“Dr. Whitesell checked in with us throughout the surgery to let us know everything was going well and that there were no ill effects,” says Bushnell-Kernan. “It was a huge relief.  We trust her 100 percent.”

“After the surgery, Devin was eager to go home,” says his father. “Initially, they told us he would be in the hospital up to a week. He was discharged the next day. The physical therapist said they had never seen anyone so eager to get up out of bed and moving.”

Happy to be home with his parents and two sisters, Destiny and Jocelyn, Devin is making great progress.

“He is 4.5 inches taller in height, and his curvature has gone from 125 degrees to 59 degrees,” says his mother. “The improvements to his posture, stability and structure have been phenomenal. Before the surgery, Devin had a hard time sitting for a long period of time. Now, he can sit independently and is more relaxed and very comfortable. Devin also runs around a lot better. With the spine being offset, it was rather hard to do so before.

“It is such a dramatic change how much straighter his spine has gotten,” she continues. “This is the best procedure we’ve ever had with our little guy. He’s happy, always in good spirits and his vocabulary skills have improved.”

Devin will need one more surgery for the final spinal fusion when he is finished growing, according to Dr. Whitesell, and only an additional surgery if he outgrows the current magnetic rods.  

“Devin is walking taller and holds his head high,” says Dr. Whitesell. “He is better able to look at you, be engaged and he has more confidence. From a surgeon’s perspective, it is exceptionally rewarding to see what happens when you give the kids this improvement and see how it impacts their lives and their families.”

Learn more about the Mazor Robotics System

Posted in: Kids' Health | Stories

About The Author

Jean Jackman

Jean is our former vice president of marketing, She has written hundreds of articles and book reviews for newspapers in Washington, Michigan and Oregon.

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