Teenage ninja overcomes kyphoscoliosis
Ryleigh Rodgers wants to be a pediatric surgeon. After being diagnosed with a rare condition called kyphoscoliosis and enduring multiple spine procedures, she is more equipped than ever to put in the work and make sacrifices to achieve her goal.
A gymnast since she was 3, by age 11, Ryleigh already had her sights on collegiate gymnastics. In order to become an elite gymnast, Ryleigh trained 28 hours a week. One day, she noticed an increase in her back pain. She was seen by multiple doctors when, finally, an X-ray revealed a curvature in her spine.
Diagnosis: Congenital kyphoscoliosis
Ryleigh and her family were referred to Dr. Gary Brock, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon who specializes in spinal deformity in children. After undergoing X-rays and an MRI, she was diagnosed with congenital kyphoscoliosis.
As Dr. Brock explains, "Congenital kyphoscoliosis is a congenital condition, meaning it is present from birth. It is a combination of an outward, front-to-back curvature (kyphosis) and a lateral, side-to-side curvature (scoliosis) of the spine. In Ryleigh's case, she had a fairly sharp kyphotic deformity involving five levels of her thoracic spine, with the apex of her deformity at T6."
Recommendation: Spinal fusion surgery
After following Ryleigh for a number of months, Dr. Brock recommended spinal fusion surgery to prevent further progression of her deformity.
"One of the things that I always try to get across to families is the best day to do surgery is the first day that you're convinced that it's the best decision for your child. If certain conditions are present, the curves will likely worsen. The worse the deformity is, the more likely you'll have a complication, especially a neurologic complication. Once we are certain that those conditions are present, it's time to act," says Dr. Brock.
Dr. Brock continues, "I think the family was appropriately very nervous about surgery. I explained the trade-offs, that the more correction (of the curve) we tried to achieve, the more risk there would be to the nerve roots and the spinal cord. We settled on fusing five levels, which I felt would address the biggest part of the deformity."
In February 2016, when Ryleigh was 12, she underwent spine reconstructive surgery at Texas Orthopedic Hospital to fuse the kyphoscoliosis in her thoracic spine using screws, rods and hooks. During the surgery, Dr. Brock's surgical team monitored Ryleigh's spinal cord signals. "Every time we tried to maximize correction of the kyphosis, her spinal cord signals would be depressed, and we'd have to back off a little bit on the correction," says Dr. Brock.
While the first surgery was successful, it wasn't the end of the road for Ryleigh.
At the time of Ryleigh's initial diagnosis, her parents took her out of gymnastics. Although it was her passion, it posed too great a health risk. Ryleigh took it in stride, saying, "I was just mad I had to quit," and immersed herself in two new sports, competitive diving and ninja training.
In March 2016, Ryleigh lost movement in one of her legs (a condition Dr. Brock describes as delayed paraparesis). At the time, an MRI was performed and a hematoma (a solid swelling of clotted blood) was identified, compressing her spinal cord. Dr. Brock performed a laminectomy to decompress the area and remove the pressure on Ryleigh's nerve. Movement in her legs returned completely.
By March 2017, she was excelling at diving but began experiencing a new increase in her back pain. A workup to investigate the source showed she had developed a pseudarthrosis (failure to fuse) between two of the instrumented vertebrae. An additional surgery was performed to fuse those levels. "This was something we had been watching for a while. While no one wanted to see Ryleigh back in surgery, we felt we needed to go back and fuse two additional levels to provide reinforcement," says Dr. Brock.
A survivor and a warrior
Despite her setbacks, Ryleigh is not only a survivor, she's a warrior. Her mom, Dana, says, "Ryleigh views adversity as her reason and not her excuse. She used it as her reason to basically prove to others she can still do it and not as her excuse to say, 'I can't.' She considers her ability to be greater than her disability."
In September 2017, Ryleigh was cleared by Dr. Brock to resume diving and ninja training. In July 2018, she competed in AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) Nationals diving competition, placing fifth in the nation in the 1-meter competition and sixth in the nation in the 3-meter competition.
Ryleigh was among 6,000 kids and teenagers across the nation to apply to compete in the American Ninja Warrior Junior competition, which airs on the Universal Kids network. Ryleigh was among a select group of 192, including 64 in her age group, invited to compete.
Dr. Brock says he has the utmost respect for his young patient, whom he describes as "an amazing young woman." "Kids just have this indomitable spirit that they're gonna make the best of it. And Ryleigh just epitomizes that. She refused to give in to really what can only be described as an incredibly adverse year. She came in with a determined attitude that she was going to get where she wanted to go. Despite her condition, despite her surgeries, she was going to make it. I think Ryleigh will be able to look back one day and say, 'I can do this because I did that.'"