When I first agreed to wear Dhani Jones’ bow ties on FOX in support of different causes and charities, I asked Dhani’s director of philanthropy, Chad Williamson, if they could design one or two ties for organizations that were personal to me.
Chad said "No problem"; Dhani’s initiative, the Bow Tie Cause, is all about telling stories, the more personal, the better.
Well, I almost completely missed a story that was right in front of me, a story that I initially dismissed even though it’s as personal as it gets.
So, after a full season of wearing bow ties each week on FOX, I’ve got a story to tell as we begin our coverage of the American League Championship Series on Saturday night.
It took me a while to figure out what the story was, actually. But I think I’ve finally got it.
It’s a story about getting to the right place.
It is about my daughter Sarah, who underwent surgery in late June for scoliosis, or curvature of the spine.
It is about my wife Lisa, who spent countless hours searching for a surgeon who could promise Sarah a shorter recovery time than the standard six to 12 months.
And it is about my high school classmate, Dr. Lloyd Hey, whose own life experience led him to become that surgeon, unbeknownst to me.
The bow tie I will wear Saturday night represents the Scoliosis Research Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to education, research and treatment of spinal deformity. It was designed by Lloyd’s daughter, also Sarah, who adapted the pattern from the original SRS logo created in 1966. Sarah is an art and psychology major at the University of North Carolina.
My role in all this?
Well, my daughter, Sarah, inherited scoliosis from me — I had my own corrective surgery when I was 17. And yet, even though I had intimate knowledge of the condition, I somehow thought that it did not merit a bow tie.
Scoliosis generally is not life-threatening. The surgery’s rate of success is quite good. And the ordeal is not the same as it was when I had the operation in 1980. I spent three weeks in the hospital, and for six months wore a body cast that extended from my shoulders to my hips.
To me, other causes just seemed more worthy.
But as Sarah’s story unfolded, I realized how wrong I was.
Scoliosis is rare in boys — the ratio of girls to boys with significant spinal curves is 10 to 1. I’m not quite sure how I hit the lottery. All I knew was that my doctor had told me that if I ever had children, to make sure they were checked regularly.
Sarah, 15, is the youngest of our three children. We caught her scoliosis early, when she was 10. She tried different braces. We desperately wanted her to avoid surgery. But nothing stopped her curve from progressing.
You might recall me tweeting about Sarah a few years back — she landed a principal role in the Broadway musical “Ragtime,” when she was 13. The show ran for only about two months, but we moved from Baltimore to New York after our older two children went to college, trying to make it easier for Sarah to pursue additional acting roles.
The scoliosis clock was ticking the entire time.
Sarah slept in a brace — and a rather uncomfortable one at that — even when she was performing eight shows a week. But her curve eventually reached a point where surgery was inevitable. And one doctor after another told us that after the operation, she could not resume physical activity for at least six months.
Well, Sarah is like most teenagers, an active kid. She sings and dances, rides the subway to school, bounces around. To me, a six-month recovery seemed reasonable; Sarah, thanks to an improvement in the surgery, would not need to wear a cast like I did. My wife, though, could not stand the thought of Sarah being down for so long.
We had picked out a doctor to perform Sarah’s surgery, but Lisa was on the Internet virtually every night, reading about scoliosis, looking for alternate solutions.
One night, she popped her head into my office while I was writing. She said that she had found a doctor who worked on high-performance athletes, did the surgery a different way, got people back on their feet more quickly.
I won’t lie — I was a little suspicious, though I knew better than to say so.
“He’s from Oyster Bay,” Lisa said.
That would be Oyster Bay, NY, a small town on the north shore of Long Island — my hometown.
I’ve lost touch with virtually everyone from Oyster Bay, but if that is where this doctor was from, there was at least a reasonable chance I knew him.
“His name is Hey,” Lisa said.
“Lloyd Hey?” I replied.
Lisa said yes. And right away, I knew that she had hit the jackpot.
When Lloyd Hey was 16, he was struck by a car while riding a moped and nearly lost his left leg — and almost his life. He stayed in the hospital for more than three months, underwent 11 surgeries and endured painful therapy.
We were in high school then. Most of us knew that Lloyd had been hurt badly. But even many of us who were friendly with him did not grasp the extent of his injury.
To hold the bones rigid in Lloyd’s leg, doctors attached pins to his bones. A metal frame held the pins together. But the frame could not hold the bones rigid, which only added to Lloyd’s pain and slowed his recovery.
Now comes the incredible part.
Lloyd had a knack for fixing things; before attending Harvard Medical School, he earned a degree in electrical engineering from MIT. He took it upon himself to design a more rigid frame. His father, Albert, an aeronautical engineer, enlisted friends at Grumman to make the critical new pieces out of aluminum.
The new frame worked. About a year after Lloyd suffered his injury, he finally walked again.
The experience inspired him to pursue a career in orthopaedic medicine, and seek innovative ways to help patients. Dr. John Hall, one of the founders of SRS, and Dr. John Emans inspired Lloyd at Boston Children’s Hospital to help children and adults with spinal deformity by developing “frames on the inside.”
I checked out Lloyd’s website and was duly impressed; somebody from Oyster Bay High School had made good! But when I first called my old classmate, I asked him the questions any parent would ask: What makes your procedure different? How do you get dancers and athletes back to their active lives so quickly?
Lloyd explained that the surgical techniques have come a long way in the past 50 years; the hardware is stronger now, the techniques for correcting and holding the spine much-improved. He said that he has continued to improve his own surgical techniques and instrumentation over the years, getting better corrections with less surgical time and faster recoveries.
He was as passionate and sincere as I remembered him. And as I would tell him later, only half-joking, he was about one of three people from my high school that I would trust.
Sarah’s surgery was June 28 at the home of the Hey Clinic, Duke-Raleigh Hospital in Raleigh, NC. The surgery lasted 3-1/2 hours, and there is no getting around it — her initial pain was awful, similar to what I remembered.
The trauma is quite pronounced — Lloyd straightened and fused Sarah’s spine, then reinforced his work with rods, screws and clamps. The first three days were horrible for Sarah. But on the fourth day, we flew home.
Four weeks later, Sarah was dancing again. A few weeks after that, she was completely off pain medication. Now she is back to normal, a sophomore in high school, complete with a much straighter spine.
The only thing worse than seeing your child in pain is the pain that your child actually experiences. Sitting with Lisa and Sarah in the hospital, all the memories from my own surgery came flooding back. And it occurred to me: Scoliosis merits a bow tie. How could I have thought it did not?
A few days after Sarah’s surgery, I sent Lloyd an email explaining to him that I wear a bow tie on MLB on FOX each week to represent a different charity or organization. I told him I wore the ties mostly to raise awareness, and asked for his blessing to wear one for the Scoliosis Research Society.
His response stunned me.
The cause was worthier than I thought.
“Due to federal government policy changes in the last 10-plus years, the routine scoliosis screenings that used to happen in schools around the country have pretty much gone away completely,” Lloyd said.
“These policy changes were not based on good science, and have resulted in a tremendous decrease in scoliosis and kyphosis (hunchback) awareness, which I believe has resulted in much later diagnosis for many children, adolescents and younger adults, resulting in much more difficult surgery, with less curve correction with more risk. It has also resulted in more pain, more disc degeneration, and poorer self-image for many younger people.
“SRS not only promotes scoliosis awareness and care here, but also supports scoliosis work overseas, including doing scoliosis care and surgery in Africa. Literally SRS has a world-wide impact for education and research and care.”
So, there you have it.
I will wear the SRS bow tie Saturday night in honor of Sarah, out of gratitude to Lloyd and in tribute to all those children and adults who are affected by spinal deformity.
My back is straight. Sarah’s back is straight.
It’s time I got the story straight, too.
For more information about the Scoliosis Research Society, go to www.srs.org.