Life after scoliosis surgery: From chocolate chips to Miss Iowa USA
Miss Iowa USA 2022 Randi Estabrook aims to inspire teenage girls preparing to undergo the same surgery she had at University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital.
As Miss Iowa USA 2022, Randi Estabrook knows the power of resilience. Now 24 years old, she earned her title after competing in the annual pageant for the past five years.
But the possibility of a crown wasn’t even on her mind 10 years ago. In fact, what she really wanted was to play Division I softball after major spinal surgery.
“I was a pitcher and softball was my entire life,” she says. “When we found out I needed surgery for scoliosis, I had a lot of people through the sports community doubt that I would come back.”
But she did come back, and now she’s giving back to the place that corrected the course of her life just as it corrected the curvature of her spine: University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital.
The chocolate chip analogy
Randi was diagnosed with scoliosis by a local provider in the Des Moines area when she was eight years old. At the age of 13, her condition was getting worse, threatening her lungs. Her family turned to Stuart Weinstein, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital who specialized in spinal deformities. According to Weinstein, the severity of Randi’s case is rare, only affecting a small percentage of the world’s population.
“In this kind of surgery, we're attaching rods to each vertebra, and I'm literally by hand untwisting the crooked vertebrae," Weinstein says. “And to make it permanent, we do what's called a spinal fusion.”
For a young girl, the words “spinal fusion” can sound intimidating, but thankfully, Randi says, an analogy from Weinstein put her at ease.
"Something I'll never forget, is the way he simplifies everything he's talking about for little kids to understand,” she says. “So, when he explained the surgery to me, I remember he used the chocolate chip cookie reference."
Weinstein says it’s like this: imagine your spine is a pen and you sprinkle it with chocolate chips, representing bone fragments, which will hold the pen in place if you let the chocolate chips melt. Now, of course, Weinstein isn’t putting chocolate chips on children’s backs, but as one of the leading spinal surgeons in the country, he uses the bone fragments to stabilize rods that are placed within the child’s back to correct the curvature of scoliosis.
“I was never really even nervous for my surgery. I think my parents were more scared than I was,” says Randi. “Every appointment I would go to, I would just get so excited to see him just because he's so much fun to be around and he answers every single question in a way that you're going to understand.”
Weinstein says it’s part of his approach to engage and include all his patients in their care, regardless of age.
"They need to know that I'm on their side, that I hear their concerns. And that this is about them and their relationship with me, and then mom and dad can ask questions second,” he says. “I think an important aspect of taking care of teenagers is enfranchising them. Because they may feel helpless."
He believes it’s his job to help them not only understand the surgery and its purpose, but what it means for their lives down the road.
Giving back to UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital
After earning her title, Randi wanted to give back to pediatric patients who were dealing with a diagnosis similar to her. She virtually met with a young patient this October, hoping to be the one thing she felt she lacked after surgery: a role model.
“I've always told my family; I wish I could go to the hospital or be able to find a way to reach these kids and give them someone to look up to because I was able to still play sports at the Division I level,” she says.
Weinstein finds joy in seeing his patients, both current and former, thrive after surgery. He believes that stories like Randi’s will help young patients understand that they can still achieve their goals.
“It's often easier for patients to relate to somebody younger,” Weinstein says. “I've been here so long that usually there's somebody in a patient’s school who had surgery for scoliosis or a friend who had it, people know people. But now with Randi, they have a role model, someone who was an athlete, who's Miss Iowa, who's very accomplished.”
Although the surgery was more than a decade ago, winning Miss Iowa USA reminded Randi of how far she’s come.
“I want kids to know there is life after surgery,” she says. “It may be hard for a few months but then down the road, your life is going to be completely normal again and you'll be able to play sports, go to school, see your friends. Everything's going to be fine.”