GARDNER – According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, six to nine million people in the U.S. are affected by scoliosis, a lateral curvature of the spine.
Gardner-South Wilmington’s Celia Barna said she was in fifth grade when she was diagnosed as one of them.
“I didn’t really think anything of it,” Barna said. “I didn’t really care.”
Three years later, Barna would care. Her condition worsened to the point that she became one of the 38,000 people that the AANS says require spinal fusion surgery each year.
Spurt causes hurt
Celia’s mother, Leslie, said her daughter grew three inches in six weeks in summer 2012. Such a growth spurt could be considered common for someone about to enter the eighth-grade.
What was uncommon was the severe worsening of Celia’s scoliosis that accompanied the growth. According to Leslie, Celia went from a 10-degree curvature to a 45-degree curvature, largely during the growth spurt.
Celia was already a three-sport athlete when she learned last December that her condition was pronounced enough that surgery would be necessary for her to keep playing sports long-term.
The Barnas chose to go forward with the surgery, but they waited until a week after Celia’s eighth-grade volleyball season ended. They were already experienced in such matters; Celia’s sister, Sophie, underwent major knee surgery a year prior.
Celia was likely not the only member of the Gardner eighth-grade volleyball team in tears following its 25-19, 25-10 loss to Augusta Southeastern in the 8-2A state championship in March. For Celia, the tears were because she wondered if she had played competitive sports for the last time.
Surgery and recovery
Dr. Mark Moran performed spinal fusion surgery on Celia at Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox in late March. According to Leslie, Harrington rods were used to fuse Celia from her mid-thoracic vertebrae to the top of her lumbar vertebrae.
Celia said she was “mean” because of the pain she was experiencing after the surgery.
“I remember this one physical therapist came in, and they made me get up right away, like out of my bed, and I really wanted to hit them because I did not want to get up,” Celia said.
During her four-night hospital stay, Celia was made to get up and walk around at least a couple of times a day. The pain was constant.
“I had this one thing, the morphine button or whatever,” Celia said. “Yeah, I clicked that a bunch of times.”
The pain did not subside when Celia was allowed to return home. She missed about three weeks of school – longer than expected, mostly because a nerve problem in her leg made it difficult for her to sit up. Leslie called it “30 days of pure agony.”
“She doesn’t even talk about that, which is amazing,” Leslie said. “But I mean it was very painful. It was very trying.”
During some of the lowest moments, Celia would question if she would ever play sports again.
“I took down all my medals and all that kind of stuff when I was in [my bedroom] one day,” Barna said. “I took them all down and put them away. I didn’t want to look at them.”
Return to action
Once Celia survived that initial month, Leslie said it was “like magic” how well her recovery went.
By July, Celia was cleared to run and to participate in sports, provided she avoided contact. With her freshman year at Gardner-South Wilmington High School approaching, she could attend open gyms, though she had to work out on her own. In August, she was cleared to fully participate in sports, excluding high-contact ones Celia would not play anyway such as football or lacrosse.
Celia was able to play a full season on the freshman volleyball team, which was a full season more than had been originally planned. The timing of the surgery was intended to allow Celia – if everything went well – to play basketball this winter; she had assumed she would miss volleyball entirely.
“Her recovery as a teenager is not like at all what I’m used to it being in the adult population,” Leslie, who is a neuroscience nurse, said. “She was doing full contact diving at four months. It was incredible how she recovered.”
Not every step in the road back has been easy for Celia.
“In the beginning of volleyball season, I didn’t really like the way I felt,” she said. “I thought I felt really different, and I didn’t think I was as good as I was. I thought I was bad because of the way I felt, so I just didn’t really like it, and then when we started to actually go in and play more, I started to feel like, ‘Oh, it’s not that bad.’ I still feel different when I play, because I’m not as flexible anymore.”
In volleyball, Celia split time between GSW’s freshman and sophomore teams. She compiled 18 kills, 14 aces and 42 assists for the freshmen and 22 kills, 21 aces and 58 assists for the sophomores. Four games into the basketball season, Celia is averaging five points and 5.5 rebounds a game for the GSW sophomore team.
“Celia did a great job setting for both teams this fall,” GSW head volleyball coach Melissa Cardone said in an email. “She really recovered from surgery well and made an impact on the floor.”
Beyond lost flexibility, Celia still deals with some pain, but it is minor enough to be treated with, and almost completely erased by ibuprofen. Otherwise, any struggles she is having in sports have been mental – Leslie said Celia has been a bit timid early in the basketball season – rather than physical.
“I really, really don’t think I could go back,” Celia said. “If I ever had my bars taken out, I don’t know if I’d ever be able to adjust back to that now, because just of the way I practice with it now. It’s like different, but it’s better. It feels better.”