A lifetime of scoliosis won’t stop this woman from hiking trails around the world

Jennifer White’s scoliosis continued to cause pain, and she knew it was time to return to the U.S. and see a doctor.

Sometimes in life, it takes something drastic to inspire change. Jennifer White’s catalyst was the X-ray image of her spine.

“The surgeon pulled it up on the screen, and it was literally an ‘S,’” Jennifer said. “I knew I had some curvature, I just didn’t understand [how much], and I never really thought about it. But looking at the screen, it literally looked like a snake was my spine, and I was shocked.”

Jennifer, now 50, had been living with severe scoliosis since she was a child. It was never corrected, but it never stopped her from living an active life. That is, until about five years ago when her back pain became a daily dose of aggravation. Doctors recommended surgery then, but she put it off and began to travel. Eventually, she landed in Lucca, a city in central Italy, lush with hills and walking trails. There, she fell in love with multiday, long-distance walks.

But, the walks did not come without consequences.

Jennifer’s scoliosis continued to cause pain, and she knew it was time to return to the U.S. and see a doctor. She and her husband moved to Louisville, and a family friend recommended Charles H. Crawford III, M.D., orthopedic spine surgeon with Norton Leatherman Spine.

“Norton Leatherman Spine has a more than 50-year history of being a world-renowned, leading spine center,” Dr. Crawford said. “I’m fortunate to work with my partners and in a facility that is widely recognized as one of the leading spine surgery centers in the world. The many decades of research and experience with training future spine surgeons ensures that we are providing the best spine surgery care possible.”

After three visits, several rounds of discussions and hours of research, Jennifer decided to have surgery on January 7, 2022.

“If I want to keep up with that lifestyle, I’m going to have to do something,” Jennifer said. “That was the decision point. He told me that I could get back to my life, and I trusted him — and I didn’t think about it again.”

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Jennifer needed two incisions, one in the top and one in the bottom of her back. Her surgery lasted more than six hours, requiring four rods, eight hooks and 26 screws to straighten her spine and correct her scoliosis.

She walked out of surgery full of metal, but was pain-free in weeks.

“I’m not going to say there weren’t some dark days, some dark hours,” Jennifer said. “But the pain was not there even after coming off of pain medicines, and I knew, at that point, that this was absolutely going to be the best life that I could have.”

Back to the trails

At Jennifer’s three-month postoperative checkup, Dr. Crawford medically cleared her to restart her walks, and she immediately took advantage. She and her husband flew out West to hike the national parks. Then, they flew to Mexico to hike Chichén Itzá. She came out of the trips unscathed, and continued to push her body’s boundaries.

In September 2022, Jennifer and her husband completed their longest walk yet, a 100-mile hike along Hadrian’s Wall in northern England.

“There were some challenging days,” Jennifer said. “You know your mileage for the day, mentally how far you’re going that day. But there are things off the trail — museums, Roman sites — and we didn’t want to miss a thing. So a 17-mile day ended up at 21 miles. It wears on you mentally, but physically it was nothing.”

Treating the whole patient

Jennifer credits her success to Dr. Crawford, who not only performed a successful surgery, but guided her through the process in a way that allowed her to feel comfortable.

“I knew the surgery was great; I was fixed,” she said. “[Dr. Crawford] has a good read on patients, and he read me the minute I walked in there. He knew I needed more information, and it was going to take some time, and he gave me both.”

“Changing somebody’s life like this is a big responsibility,” Dr. Crawford said. “When you see a patient like Jennifer who’s done so well and has really benefited from your knowledge and skills, it’s a huge reward and reminds us all why we became doctors in the first place.”

Now, Jennifer and her husband have more hikes planned. They plan to walk Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Scotland, and eventually work their way up to travel the Via Francigena, a 1,000-mile trail from Canterbury, England, to Apulia, Italy.

It’s a journey that five years ago may have been impossible, but now seems like a walk in the park. “Decide where you want to be later on, and talk to a surgeon about what you need to do now to get there,” Jennifer said. “It’s not a decision you can make on your own or read on the internet and decide; it really takes the professionalism of a team like Dr. Crawford’s to walk you through what the surgery looks like and walk you through how you get back to your own life.”

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