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After surgery for scoliosis, teenager teams up with his surgeon to help other patients, physicians

“This was an opportunity to for a bright young man who overcame a health condition to learn about the medical field.”
Spinal fusion straightened Matt Sullivan’s spine. After his treatment, University of Minnesota Health Orthopaedic Surgeon David Polly, MD, offered the teenager (pictured at right) a unique summer job opportunity.

At age 15, Matt Sullivan already had a black belt in karate. But even martial arts couldn’t stop the adolescent idiopathic scoliosis that was slowly contorting his spine into a life-threatening curve.

He and his family realized that something was wrong in November 2014, when they discovered that one of Matt’s shoulders appeared lower than the other. A primary physician suspected the deformity was caused by severe scoliosis and referred Matt to University of Minnesota Health Orthopaedic Surgeon David Polly, MD, chief of spine surgery in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at the University of Minnesota.

“It hadn’t affected him much growing up, said Mike Sullivan, Matt’s dad. “We didn’t realize that Matt had an atypical spine until he was nearing high school. After talking about it with his doctors, we suspect that the curve was made worse by a growth spurt. ”

Rapid Diagnosis

Polly quickly diagnosed the condition, which affects only 2 to 3 percent of the population, and determined spinal fusion surgery was the only viable way to correct Matt’s back.

“For patients like Matt, poor spine alignment is a blow to quality of life,” said Polly. “But through University of Minnesota’s legacy of orthopedic research, we’ve learned that certain interventions, like body braces, spinal fusion or rods, can treat back problems quite successfully.”

In a complex series of maneuvers, Polly straightened the curve into a more upright position, placed bone chips along the back of the spine and held the construction together using screws and rods. The surgery took more than six hours, and he missed four weeks of school. Luckily, the motivated student could stay on top of his homework with help from a tutor.

The Silver Lining

The surgery added three inches to his height and healing went smoothly. Matt’s follow-up appointments also went exceedingly well. During these post-surgery appointments, Polly learned of Matt’s interest in the sciences. Surprisingly, Polly extended a summer job offer to Matt.

Using computer modeling, Matt is creating a digital version of the Spinal Appearance Questionnaire, which was developed in the 1990s to help surgeons better understand how patients and parents assess their spinal curve. By understanding these perceptions, physicians can better fix the deformity.

Learn more about our pediatric orthopaedic surgery care services.

Matt, too, filled out a paper copy this questionnaire during his treatment. But the work he’s doing now will allow patients to more accurately describe their spinal assessment, which will ideally lead to better treatment of scoliosis.

Matt’s reaction is decidedly humble. Though he doesn’t talk about this unique internship with his friends often, he says he appreciates the opportunity. Matt and Polly have already discussed continuing his internship next summer.

“I don’t look at this as a job, but more as a way to help me decide what I want to do with my life,” said Matt. “The people I work with and the programs I’m using have given me some ideas about what I would like to do in the future for my education and possibly for employment.”

“By allowing kids to explore medicine, they may unlock a talented gift that they never knew existed,” Polly said. “This was an opportunity to for a bright young man who overcame a health condition to learn about the medical field, a profession that I’m hugely passionate about.”