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Scoliosis sidelined Colorado sisters, but improved surgical procedure offers promise

Doctors tout benefits of new procedure
Ruby and Ire Levitt
Posted at 4:01 PM, Jul 08, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-08 18:01:20-04

BOULDER, Colo. — Sisters Ruby and Ire Levitt, of Boulder, are unfortunately carrying on a family tradition that they share with both their mom and grandmother — scoliosis.

“The things we can’t do or are restricted because of it... I think it’s definitely something that has helped us become closer,” said Ire, who was first diagnosed when she was 15.

Scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine, can be genetic. It’s more common in girls than boys.

Younger sister Ruby was diagnosed at the age of 11. Eventually, the curve in her spine progressed to the point where she needed a back brace.

“That was like the end of my life," she said. "Not really, but I felt like it was."

The brace was uncomfortable and prevented Ruby from wearing certain clothes. The pain from her condition also limited her sports and activities, even leading her to cancel plans with friends.

But Ruby has been brace-free for more than a year, thanks to a procedure called vertebral body tethering (VBT). Pediatric orthopedic surgeon Dr. Jaren Riley brought it to Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children three years ago.

“It holds some really great promise when it comes to retaining the motion of the spine after we straighten the spine for scoliosis,” Riley said.

A more common surgical solution for scoliosis has been spinal fusion. But that involves placing a rod that makes the spine rigid, whereas VBT allows surgeons to use a rope that helps the spine maintain flexibility.

“There’s a shorter stay in the hospital, (the patients) get back to sports quicker, and I think they have a sense that they’ve preserved a little bit more of themselves,” Riley said.

Ire is hoping to undergo the procedure at some point. Her scoliosis isn’t as severe as her sister’s was, but she still suffers pain.

“I’ve recently started doing yoga, which is one of the things they recommend to strengthen your back and muscles,” she said.

Ruby has nothing but praise for the VBT procedure, saying her pain has completely disappeared. Riley said it may not be the solution for all scoliosis patients, but for many it reduces the likelihood of future surgeries.

Ire graduated from high school last May and will attend college in the fall. Ruby will start high school.

“In my elementary school, I was known as the girl who had the brace, so I’m excited to get kind of a fresh start,” she said.