I met Amanda of Scoliosis Awareness Philippines at the #hcsmph advocacy track last April. Her advocacy was mandating scoliosis screening in schools. I promised her then that I would write a blog post about my scoliosis story.
Today I fulfill my promise as yesterday (June 25 is International Scoliosis Awareness Day) on Amanda’s invitation, I was on stage at the Philippine Rehabilitation Institute to tell those who came for free scoliosis screening, MY scoliosis story.
Below is a transcript of my speech, though I added a bit more on stage, connecting with what other speakers talked about earlier in the afternoon.
I was diagnosed at 12 years old. I am now 44 so I have been living with scoliosis for more than three decades. In my grade school graduation picture, my right shoulder was lower than my left. I was listing to one side. My mother noticed this and often told me to straighten up. My mother worked in the World Health Organization. One day in the course of her work, she came across information about scoliosis. It struck her that maybe I had it. When she went home that day, she asked me to bend down in front of her. True enough, she saw my back hump.
I went in for a consultation at the National Orthopedic Hospital. I underwent a series of X-rays which confirmed that I had scoliosis. I remember distinctly that my mother cried. I was scared. The doctor told me, do you know that only beautiful women get scoliosis? Lorna Tolentino. Zsa Zsa Padilla. I was amused but not reassured. I wondered if any smart women had scoliosis, or any doctors had it. Because I wanted to be a doctor.
I was told to exercise and go swimming. I had X-rays every 6 months to monitor my S curve. My curve worsened within a year. The doctor said I needed to wear a brace, a Milwaukee Yamamoto brace. It had a chin rest. I will never forget how they made a cast of my body so the technician could make my brace. The bandages with the plaster of Paris wound around my body like an Egyptian mummy, and the terror of having it cut open to take off the mold.
It was difficult to wear the brace in our tropical climate. I only took it off when I took a bath. It was a challenge to wear a brace during my teen years but my parents encouraged me to embrace my identity, that being different was okay. It helped that I did well in school so no one actually bullied me.
The first time I wore my brace in high school, many thought I’d had an accident. I got tired of explaining to everyone what scoliosis was. They couldn’t believe I had to wear the brace for years. Eventually, they got tired of asking.
I was told I needed to wear the brace until my spine stopped growing and the bones matured. I wore the brace for five years – from age 13 until 18. So yes, my debut also meant freedom from the brace. I joined the CAT in my senior year at high school and even became an officer. No one stopped me because in my brace I could stand straighter than any of them and march stiffly like a real soldier.
I took up my premed course in UP Diliman were there was no required school uniform. With my brace, there was no hope of blending in so I decided to stand out instead. I wore big dangling earrings. I covered my chin rest with colored bandannas to match my outfit or my socks. At one point, I needed braces on my teeth too. I went for it and began calling myself the Brace Beauty. Also Beauty, Brain and Brace. I finished BS Biology magna cum laude.
Although I no longer had to wear my brace in medical school, long hours standing while working in the hospital was hard on my back. I also couldn’t exercise regularly. I went on to specialize in internal medicine and endocrinology. I was very busy so I pretty much only remembered my scoliosis when I went shopping for clothes. I would get irked when the sales lady would insist on a smaller size as I always got a size bigger to accommodate my back hump. I wore mostly empire cut dresses which became annoying too when I gained weight. I would sometimes get asked if I was pregnant on checking in for a flight or while on duty by patients because they thought I was in a maternity dress. I became so skilled at hiding my scoliosis under my clothes, standing in a certain way to hide my curvature in pictures that whenever I wore more fitting clothes, friends would tap me on the shoulder telling me my scoliosis was getting worse when it actually wasn’t!
My scoliosis worsened for real after I had my two sons. During the pregnancy and after giving birth, I had really bad back pain that I needed to undergo physical therapy. I contemplated surgery but I had a busy medical practice and didn’t want to take time off from work.
Several years back I began to have shooting pains down my left leg. An MRI revealed that I had nerve impingement from my scoliosis. I went into physical therapy again, but stopped once my pain was relieved. Luckily, I found a Pilates studio near my house, through a Facebook ad. I now go to Pilates twice a week. I’ve been going regularly for two years. I no longer suffer from back pain. My instructor says my core is getting stronger. I wish I had started years back. I intend to do Pilates for the rest of my life.
I don’t know where you are on your scoliosis journey. I just started on my ideas notebook. On the first page, I have quotes to inspire me. Let me share a few.
Life is tough my darling, but so are you. Do what they think you can’t do. When was the last time you did something for the first time? You don’t have to have it all figured out to move forward. Don’t count the days, make the days count.
Thanks to Amanda for inviting me here today, and making this day count. Thank you for listening to my story.
Looking back, I realized that scoliosis screening was also not available at school even then. Would I have been diagnosed earlier if my mother had not known about scoliosis? Amanda says we need statistics to convince the Department of Health that screening for scoliosis at school is needed. Others with scoliosis are speaking up.
Thanks again Amanda for an afternoon well spent.