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Breanna Harrell

CAIRO — A local teen is recovering well just weeks after undergoing an intensive surgery to correct a rare spinal condition.

Three weeks removed from her posterior spinal fusion, 14-year-old Breanna Harrell is feeling more and more herself every day.

"She's ready to get out of the house," said Becky Harrell, Breanna's mother. "She's ready to go to church and see her friends."

The drama-free ninth grader who loves God and singing at her church was diagnosed in early 2018 with Adolescent Idiopathic Scoliosis, the most common form of scoliosis among youth.

"We just noticed a hump on her back when I was scratching her one night," Becky said.

After taking Breanna to a local children's pediatric center, it was discovered that her condition was serious — she had two curvatures in her spine, one of 38 degrees and another of 54 degrees. While AIS affects roughly 3 percent of Americans, curves of Breanna's size or larger only affect about 0.3 percent of the population.

Though the curvatures weren't affecting Breanna's quality of life at the time, doctors warned that, left unchecked, the bends could worsen.

Breanna wore a special brace at night for about a year and a half, but it wasn't able to prevent her curve from progressing. Long-term repair was going to require surgery.

A procedure initially was scheduled with an area surgeon in August, but was put on hold when Becky heard of Vertebral Body Tethering, a revolutionary new spinal surgery that uses a device that had only recently received FDA approval. Dr. Joshua Murphy, an orthopedic surgeon at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta who specializes in spinal deformities, was the first surgeon in Georgia to perform the procedure.

“Spinal tethering is a minimally invasive way to correct scoliosis in patients who still have growth remaining,” Dr. Murphy said. “They have a shorter recovery time and can return to activity faster."

Only a fraction of scoliosis patients meet the criteria to undergo VBT surgery, and as it turns out, Breanna was not among them. Though she couldn't move forward with the innovative procedure, the family decided that Murphy was the perfect fit to undertake a spinal fusion, the traditional method of surgical correction for scoliosis.

"The primary goal of the surgery is to stop further progression," Dr. Murphy said, but that isn't the only objective in the procedure. Surgeons also had to ensure that Breanna would have what doctors call "coronal and sagittal balance," or the ability to sit up straight with her head resting above her pelvis and not leaning to one side or another. The other goal in the surgery is what Dr. Murphy calls a "relative cosmetic" procedure to correct asymmetries in Breanna's ribs and waist. 

There were some scheduling hiccups along the way — the COVID-19 pandemic made getting to a hospital more difficult — but Breanna's surgery was finally scheduled for September 24 at Children’s Scottish Rite Hospital.

"It was emotional," Becky said. "It was hard, but Children's was amazing. They walked us through every step."

Hospital officials even showed Breanna pictures of the operating room to familiarize her with her surroundings.

"They bent over backwards to make her as comfortable as she could be," Becky said.

It took about four and a half hours, but Murphy was able to successfully place two titanium rods in Breanna's spine and fuse them into place. The talented home-schooled kid who plays violin, guitar and the mandolin was back on her feet in 24 hours, and she was able to head back home just two days after her surgery.

"She's doing amazing," Becky said. "She's a strong kid."

Breanna will be limited in some activities for a while — she can't bend, lift or twist for another six months. Getting back to more intensive activities like running or participating in sports may take another year, but will eventually be possible without restrictions.

Longer term, the only activity Breanna won't be able to do is bungee jump, "which she's absolutely OK with," Becky said.

"From here it just gets better."

Becky credits Children's with setting clear expectations that Breanna's quality of life was about to improve.

"She'll hopefully live a better (life) than she would have had she not had the fusion," she said.

Scoliosis such as Breanna's, generally diagnosed between the ages of 10-18, is believed to be a genetic condition with several other contributing factors. About 11% of scoliosis patients have a first-degree relative with the same condition. Dr. Murphy said he believes Breanna developed her curve when she was about 10 or older, and that it began to progress through her teenage growth spurt.

Dr. Murphy said children should regularly see their pediatricians for scoliosis screenings, and that annual school screenings are an important component in detecting the condition early on.

"If we can detect it early then we have potential treatment options," he said.

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