AUSTIN -- Scoliosis is an illness that primarily affects teenage girls. Until now major surgery has been the only way to correct the problem. An Austin doctor is among a handful of surgeons across the country who's performing a far less invasive surgery.
One Houston family is glad they made the trip to the Capitol City.
Taylor Harris, 17, displayed confidence, poise and a perfect posture as she competed in the recent Miss Texas Teen USA pageant. However, just a few years ago, Taylor's back looked completely different in a swimsuit. At age 12 she was diagnosed with scoliosis. It's a disease that results in severe curvature of the spine. Doctors say it gets progressively worse over time, and teenage girls are 10 times more likely to be affected than teenage boys.
"It would get serious enough for me to fall to the ground," said Taylor.
Initially doctors fitted Taylor with what's called a Boston brace. It's designed to help straighten the spine.
She wore it for "8 months/23 hours a day," she said.
"She could only take it off to shower," said Angela Harris, Taylor's mom. "She had to sleep in it. She wore it all the time. She got calluses on her back and on her sides from wearing it."
"When I was in the Boston brace that's when I became sort of the 'brace girl' I guess," said Taylor. "I would have to wear baggy clothes over the brace so no one would know."
"It was really hard as a mom to see you child go through that," said Angela, holding back tears. "It was really hard. When the doctor said she had to be braced and for 23 hours a day, she started crying, and I started crying. It was tough. It was tough to see your child go through something like that."
Dissatisfied with the brace and specific, major surgery as their only doctor recommended options, Taylor and her mother left Houston's Medical District and came to Austin and the Seton Spine and Scoliosis Center.
Dr. Matthew Geck, a spinal scoliosis specialist, is the first surgeon in Central Texas and one of only four in the country who perform a corrective spinal surgery that's far less invasive than traditional operations.
"Instead of making one long incision and peeling the muscles off, I make one little incision in two or three places," said Geck. "Then I move those around the muscles."
Geck says it's still major surgery, but because the incisions are so much smaller, he's able to minimize the muscle trauma. That allows the patients to get back to their normal activities in about three to four months. In Taylor's case, activities like pageant competitions and cheerleading.
"Three months after she had the surgery she had cheerleader tryouts," said Angela. "She didn't know if she would be able to make the varsity team again, and she did."
Taylor knows she'll never regain all of her flexibility, but she says she'll gladly trade it for the new-found confidence that comes from walking with a straight spine.
"I did gain a lot of confidence," she said. "That's good for any teenager, but as a girl that's especially important. It just makes you feel beautiful inside really."
Taylor says she views the slight scars the surgery has left behind as visible lifelines. She hopes they help spark conversation with other young women who may suffer from the same illness.