PORTLAND, Maine — When the doctor finally broke the news to Kelsey Foster that she was suffering from Scheuermann’s disease, she couldn’t have been happier.
“For some people, when they hear they have a genetic degenerative disease, they’re probably crushed,” said Foster. “When I heard the name, I was ecstatic. At last I had a name.”
Despite enduring three spinal surgeries and missing weeks of school along the way, Foster will be one of the students graduating from Deering High School on Thursday morning at Cumberland County Civic Center.
Foster admits frankly that her attention to academics was only so-so before being told about Scheuermann’s disease, but with that diagnosis at the age of 15 she had an opponent to focus on. As far back as she could remember she suffered from back pain and an embarrassing hunch in her posture that she suggested kept her from reaching her full potential in the classroom. With the mystery of her ailment solved, Foster became relentless in her fight to overcome it, physically and academically.
“It’s fairly rare and there’s relatively little research on it; it mostly occurs in boys,” she said. “If Scheuermann’s is left untreated, eventually it would crush my lungs.”
With Scheuermann’s, eight of Foster’s vertebrae were wedged forward into a curl so intense the edges of the bones began to grind and chip away.
“I was always in pain,” she said. “It became hard to focus during the day. I wasn’t getting any sleep. I was constantly tired.”
In the years before the proverbial “eureka moment” in which a radiologist discovered the telltale wedging of the vertebrae, Foster accepted countless tests in search of a cause for her pain.
“I saw six specialists, had MRIs, bone scans, X-rays, physical therapy,” she rattled off the trials and errors of tests, and attempted treatments. There were two torso braces intended to force her back to straighten, but they were bulky, hot and conspicuous in the judgmental halls of high school.
“People would stare at me and it was pretty frustrating,” Foster recalled. “People didn’t know how to take it.”
Staying on course to graduate in 2012 became especially challenging during her junior year, during which she endured three spinal surgeries and missed more than 10 weeks of school.
In September 2010 she underwent surgery No. 1, a 10½-hour procedure that landed her in intensive care for five days and forced her to miss more than six weeks of school. Foster said steel rods were inserted into her back to straighten her spine and she was forced to re-learn motions that had become second nature, such as swimming for the Deering team and taking deep breaths to play the saxophone.
But her back resisted the rods and began curling again despite their presence, she said. By April, she was hurried back into the hospital for emergency surgery that would keep her out of school another four weeks. In that procedure, surgeons tied the top vertebrae in her spine back to the rods with nylon straps.
And the nylon straps?
“I don’t remember where I was or exactly what I was doing — I was probably bending over to pick something up — but I felt something in my back snap,” Foster recalled. “It didn’t hurt, but I knew something was wrong.”
Surgery No. 3 was then planned for June, just after the school year, when doctors inserted new, longer rods into her back. The new rods pulled her spine back less dramatically, allowing some, but not a dangerous amount, of the curve Foster’s muscle system had become accustomed to over the years.
Throughout her time in and out of hospitals, Foster renewed her vigor in academia.
“They don’t have tutors for ‘A-level’ courses,” she said. “I had to teach myself physics; I had to teach myself algebra 2.”
She entered her senior year without having fallen off pace for a spring 2012 graduation. But Foster didn’t just tread water, she excelled. In the fall, she plans to attend the University of Rhode Island to study biomedical engineering and German.
Foster said her near-constant contact with medical professionals over the past few years played a major role in her renewed interest in school.
“If those [doctors, nurses, surgeons and physical therapists] hadn’t gone to school for a long time, they wouldn’t have been there to help me,” she said. “If everybody took school seriously like they did, the world would be a much better place.”
An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect date. Kelsey Foster had her first surgery in September 2010, not September 2011.