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Local Surgeon Embraces Scoliosis Challenge

Dr. Jaren Riley from Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children wears a scoliosis brace to get a firsthand patient experience.

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Dr. Jaren Riley, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children in Denver, reached for a scoliosis brace each day for a week in August. Not an abnormal part of his daily practice. This time, however, instead of giving the brace to one of his young patients, he fastened the brace around his own torso. He wore the brace for 18 hours each day, and went about his normal busy schedule, working, playing with his kids, and even sleeping in the brace.

When Colorado Parent last spoke to Riley in the spring for our article “Ahead of the Curve,” he talked to us about ways to identify and treat scoliosis — an abnormal curvature of the spine. He spoke about the use of a back brace to prevent further curvature of the spine. In order for the brace to be effective, it needs to be worn for at least 18 hours a day — a lot to ask of patients, most of whom are young girls.

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To better understand what his patients experience while wearing the brace, Riley, who has a normal spine, decided to take on the challenge firsthand. He wanted to endure the same challenges as his patients — the emotional and physical — so he was fitted for a brace and wore it for 7 days, 18 hours a day.

We caught up with Dr. Riley to see how it went.

Colorado Parent: Why did you decide to wear the brace and what did this process mean to you?

Dr. Riley: I had so many patients I was prescribing them to, and no matter how much I tried to explain to them that medically it makes sense and there’s good evidence to try this, emotionally I could see that the patients still struggled with it. I really didn’t have any good answers or any ammunition on how to handle that. I felt like I needed my own experience to be able to talk to them about it during those first visits. To discuss the brace and help them understand what it was like.

CP: What was it like wearing the brace for 18 hours a day?

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Dr. Riley: The biggest challenge for me was physical. It wasn’t a super painful process, but because of how tight the brace was and the way that it holds your entire spine, it changes the way you do everything. It changes the way you sit, stand; the way you reach for objects, bend down for objects. You can’t really twist; you can’t do movement like you’re used to. It’s a little fatiguing mentally when you’re trying to overcome those physical challenges.

CP: Did you ever want to throw in the towel and take it off?

Dr. Riley: I went through a honeymoon period, where I thought ‘Hey this isn’t so bad, I can’t wait until the end of this week and I can tell all my patients I made it and we can all do this.” But after a few days I thought ‘No, you know, the reality is this is tough.” It showed me that I wasn’t stronger than these kids, and it gave me a much deeper respect for the process that they go through.

CP: What is the biggest thing you learned from this process?

Dr. Riley: The one thing I couldn’t replicate very well was the social/emotional challenges of it. A lot of my patients are young women, so there are body and images issues and the social pressures of going to school and wanting to blend in. I couldn’t replicate that very well, in fact I felt very supported through the whole process. But I think now I can relate a little better when they say things like, ‘It’s really hard to sleep,” ‘It’s hard to get clothes that fit right or look good,” ‘It’s hard to transition from life without the brace to life with it.”

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It’s not so much that I”ll have the perfect answer to turn the light bulb on and have them understand that this isn’t such a bad thing; instead, it allows me to deliver answers that I’m giving in a more genuine and believable way. They can see that we are willing to get in the trenches with them and go through the process with them. I think they can feel more supported and cared for through this very difficult process.

Wearing the brace with a normal spine was difficult. I thought about how difficult it must be for these young people who face enormous social pressure; who do have scoliosis and the anxiety of whether the scoliosis will get worse. It opened my eyes to how mentally tough these kids are and how perseverant they can be. They”re really strong kids.

To watch videos from Riley’s experiences during his week in the brace, click here.

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