Meghan Falconer, scoliosis patient: "I love swimming. I've been doing it since I was four."
Meghan Falconer: "I'm feeling really strong in my strokes."
In the stands, her parents cheer. And it was from the sidelines where Meghan Falconer's mom first noticed the strange shape of her daughter's spine.
Meghan Falconer: "She said it looked a little funky and that we should probably go get it checked out."
Dr. Chris DeWald, orthopedic surgeon, Midwest Orthopedics at Rush: "She had a double curve here."
Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Chris DeWald diagnosed Meghan with scoliosis.
Dr. Chris DeWald: "We see it in about three percent of the population. Only a small percentage of those will continue to get worse, but it is growth that makes it get larger."
Meghan began wearing a back brace at age seven, the first line of defense for treatment. But as she grew, so did the curve in her spine. By age 12, it was clear she'd need more. The curve had progressed to 50 degrees.
Dr. Chris DeWald: "The curve sometimes gets larger even though they are wearing the brace. When you stop growing, if the curve is less than 30 degrees it's not a problem. If the curves are over 50 degrees when you're done growing -- when you get to that level -- you have problems with your lung and cardiac function. Some of those we have to consider surgery for."
Like Meghan. Today, her 10-inch scar is barely visible. An external reminder of what lies inside -- an intricate grid of metal rods and screws.
Dr. Chris DeWald: "Think of the rods more like an internal cast. They hold the spine in place as the bone fuses. We put screws in through the bone into the vertebrae. As we put the rod in we'll slowly pull it, slowly straightening out like this."
The end result? In Meghan's case, a ten-level fusion of the bony vertebrae.
Dr. Chris DeWald: "Is it perfect motion? No. My restrictions would be gymnastics and contact sports. Swimming I'm ok with."
A big relief for this lifelong competitive swimmer, even though it took years after surgery to regain her fighting form. Still, scoliosis didn't sink her hopes for the future.
Meghan Falconer: "I had to slowly ease into the other things, like flip turn and diving in."
Meghan Falconer: "My goal this season is to qualify for state. Last year I made it in relays, which are really fun, but this year I'm hoping for some individuals."
Meghan's treatment may have been complicated, but it started with a simple test -- one parents can do at home with their kids. And if they find scoliosis -- in 75-percent of cases, early intervention with a brace is the only treatment necessary.
Dr. Chris DeWald: "What we're really looking for is a rotation. Look at the shoulders to see if they're level, look at the waist to see if it's level, see if their shoulder blades are on the same plane. And then we have them bend over. If you see one side is higher than the other, bring it to the pediatrician's attention."
Scoliosis tends to run in families. There is a newer genetic test called a scoli score -- it's a simple saliva DNA test that tells doctors if patients are at high risk for progression.