‘I could never have prepared myself for the pain following the op ... I woke up screaming’
Businesswoman Katie Stevenson describes her long road to recovery after being diagnosed with scoliosis — severe curvature of the spine, reports Una Brankin.
Katie Stevenson was packing shopping bags for charity at her local supermarket when she first felt a searing pain in her back. Katie was a healthy 13-year-old Holywood schoolgirl at the time, but the pain was so severe that she was sent to the A&E department at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald for tests.
The subsequent scans showed she was suffering from scoliosis, with a 68-degree curvature at the top of her spine and a 45-degree twist at the base.
“If it had gone untreated, I would have been completely bent over by the time I was 40 or 50,” says Katie, who’s now 27. “The doctors don’t know the cause — it usually shows up in adolescence, because of the growth spurt.
“It bothered me a bit at school, but it was only when I was in the hair and beauty business that the pain got really bad, from standing on my feet all day at La Bella Vita for six years.”
Scoliosis can affect people of any age, from babies to adults, but most often starts in children aged 10 to 15. Treatment for scoliosis depends on the patient’s age, how severe the curvature is and whether it’s likely to get worse with time. Many people don’t need any treatment, but Katie was deemed one of the growing numbers in Northern Ireland needing to have surgery on their spine.
At 18, she was put on a waiting list for a spinal fusion operation — but had to wait eight agonising years for the surgery.
“I started to notice a distortion in my shoulders and hips. I was in pain all the time and I had to get by on paracetamol,” she recalls. “The business I co-owned was going really well – we won three industry awards — but at the end of the day I would have to go home and lie down.
“The problem is the waiting list here in Northern Ireland is phenomenal — I never realised how many people are affected by curvature of the spine. Some people don’t even realise they have it until the pain gets bad. I had to wait for a space in London.”
A film and photography graduate of Queen’s University, Belfast, Katie was 26 before she was accepted for spinal surgery at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore, England. The intricate operation took six hours and Katie was required to sign a consent form to acknowledge the possibility that she might never walk again after the operation.
“That was if something went wrong during the surgery and they pinched something in the wrong place on my spine,” she explains. “It was frightening but I felt okay about it, weirdly. I just knew I was going to be all right, for some reason.
“I never got depressed throughout the whole time — I just kept going. But I could never have prepared myself for the pain after the op. It was all very dramatic — I woke up screaming in agony. I’ve never experienced such pain ever in my life.
“They gave me morphine, but it wasn’t strong enough, so they had to give me ketamine — horse tranquilliser — and that put me completely out of it.”
When she eventually came around, Katie feared she wouldn’t be able to walk. “The first thing mum said was to wiggle my toes, and I could — so that was very reassuring. After three days the physio got me to stand up, but it took about two weeks to learn how to walk again by myself,” she says.
“I was in intensive care for a week, then another week in a ward. I was given morphine patches and a plastic back brace, then told to go home and spend eight weeks in bed. And that was it: I was basically rushed out of the hospital, with titanium rods in my back.”
As a result, Katie endured an excruciating flight home to Belfast with her worried mother, Denise.
“I had just had major surgery and I was discharged far too quickly, with no after-care. The flight home was absolute agony — the physio I had to pay to come from the Royal was completely disgusted about that,” says Katie.
“I lay in bed for eight weeks with just my mum looking after me, and I had to make an appointment myself with the GP to get pain relief. I was so shocked that the NHS didn’t even send a physio out.
“A hair client from Dundonald hospital helped me, but after three months I phoned the surgeon in Stanmore and complained. He arranged physio after that, but I couldn’t have got through it without the support of my family and my boyfriend, Neil. He brings me hot water bottles the second I have a twinge.”
The post-op pain forced Katie to reassess her career and sell her share in La Bella Vita in Dundonald, one of Northern Ireland’s most successful hair and beauty businesses. The youngest of three, she currently lives in Cultra with her parents, Denise and Eddie, who owns an electronics centre. She has her own house in Hollywood but rented it out last year when she went on a nine-month trip to Australia to join her boyfriend Neil (34), an oil rig engineer, who was working there at the time.
It was at a holistic spa in Bali, during the trip, that Katie had a light-bulb moment about her future career.
“I was always a very creative person and into fashion, and I’ve five nieces and nephews. I’m always looking for clothes for them and I found it hard to get what I wanted at an affordable price,” she says.
“Then, I was at this holistic retreat in Bali, having a massage and I suddenly realised what I wanted to do — to run a baby clothing business on-line. I spent the rest of the time away researching the idea; I had so many ideas to create beautiful clothes, but I wasn’t sure where to start. So, I travelled around Bali, Hong Kong to Australia, meeting designers, suppliers and business mentors for advice. By the time I got back home, I was ready to get going, and started taking pictures of my personal trainer’s baby daughter in some of the ranges.”
Last month, Katie’s dream became a reality when she launched Baby Beaux Boutique on-line. The business became an overnight success, with orders from all over the world and exceeding all targets.
As she says: “I launched www.babybeauxboutique.com on July 6 on social media and it took off right away. I got 1,000 likes on the page in no time, even one from Sam Faiers from The Only Way Is Essex. I’m hoping she’ll order something for her daughter, Rosie.
“I’ve been contacting lots of mummy-bloggers too,” adds Katie. “For me, the most important aspect of the babywear is for it to be ethically produced and good quality. I like traditional styles, like what Prince George and Princess Charlotte are dressed in — little Peter Pan collars and frocks.”
Katie is running the company from home but, as she’s moving to Aberdeen soon to live with Neil, she’s currently looking for a Scottish shipping company. Her plans include branching into clothes for older children and she’s in talks with a designer for a special occasion range for age three to seven.
“I hate to see little girls in trashy clothes,” she adds. “Social media and celebrities have such an influence on them. I went to see Little Mix in concert recently with my niece and saw the influence they have. They dress so inappropriately for an audience of little girls from about three to 10. They shouldn’t be exposed to that sort of influence so young.”
Meanwhile, keeping fit and eating healthily are among her top priorities. She works out four or five times a week with a personal trainer, who is also a physiotherapist, and has lost a stone in weight since her surgery.
“I can’t do anything too strenuous because of the rods in my back but I do gentle exercise, like light weights, and walking and swimming. I never worked out before but a healthy lifestyle helps me now. I eat healthily — no junk food, except for the very odd treat. I eat a lot of greens and anti-inflammatory foods.
“I realise now how important a healthy diet and exercise are. This experience really has completely changed me — mentally and physically, and career-wise — for the better. It takes time to get used to the metal rods in my back, but they’re made of titanium, so I don’t beep when I’m going through security at the airport. Everybody asks me that!”
Katie’s website is: www.babybeaux boutique.com
Recognising the tell-tale symptoms
Scoliosis occurs when the spine twists and curves to the side.
Scoliosis doesn’t normally improve without treatment, but it isn’t usually a sign of anything serious and treatment isn’t always needed if it’s mild.
Signs of scoliosis include:
- a visibly curved spine
- leaning to one side
- uneven shoulders
- one shoulder or hip sticking out
- the ribs sticking out on one side
- clothes not fitting well.
Treatment can include:
- Babies and toddlers may not need treatment as the curve might improve over time. A plaster cast or plastic brace may be fitted to their back to stop the curve getting worse as they grow
- Older children may wear a back brace to stop the curve getting worse until they stop growing. Sometimes surgery may be needed to control the growth of the spine until an operation to straighten it can be done when they stop growing
- Adults may need treatment to relieve pain, such as painkillers, spinal injections and, very occasionally, surgery.
It’s not clear whether back exercises help improve scoliosis, but general exercise is good for overall health and shouldn’t be avoided unless advised by your doctor.
Coping and causes
Living with scoliosis
Most people with scoliosis are able to live normal lives and can do most activities, including exercise and sports.
The condition doesn’t usually cause significant pain or any other health problems and tends to stay the same after you stop growing — but an examination by a GP is advised if it gets any worse.
Having scoliosis or wearing a back brace can be tough and may cause problems with body image and self-esteem, particularly for children and teenagers. A support group, such as Scoliosis Association UK, is a good source of information and support.
Causes of scoliosis
In around eight in every 10 cases, the cause of scoliosis is unknown. This is called idiopathic scoliosis.
Idiopathic scoliosis can’t be prevented and isn’t thought to be linked to things such as bad posture, exercise or diet. Your genes may make you more likely to get it, though, as it sometimes runs in families.
Less commonly, scoliosis may be caused by:
- the bones in the spine not forming properly in the womb — this is called congenital scoliosis and is present from birth
- an underlying nerve or muscle condition, such as cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy — this is called neuromuscular scoliosis
- wear and tear of the spine with age — this is called degenerative scoliosis, which affects older adults.