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Surgery Helps Straighten Teen's Curved Spine

Daily Herald Staff Writer

Surgery Helps Straighten Teen's Curved Spine

The short car ride to his doctor's office in Wheaton took its toll on Brian Melko.

The sting of the nerve pain from his recent surgery was almost too much for the 14-year-old from Carol Stream to bear.

After arriving at Loyola Primary Care Center, he took step after painful step into the waiting room before collapsing on the couch with a perfectly upright posture not typically seen in a high school freshman.

"I feel taller," he said. "My back feels heavier."

It's been an arduous road since Jan. 31 when Brian underwent corrective surgery for a spine that was bent by a combined 70 degrees from its intended angle.

But being able to stand upright is worth the temporary suffering, he believes.

The first clue that something was wrong with Brian's spine came when he.was just 2 years old and his feet began turning unnaturally inward.

A doctor found he suffered from scoliosis and kyphosis, two disorders that lead to abnormal spine curvatures.

When Brian was 6, doctors also diagnosedhim with a connective tissue disorder called Marfan syndrome. The genetic - condition limit's the body's ability to provide itself with structural support.

While some people can go years without any corrective surgery for scoliosis, having Marfan syndrome gave Brian's joints far more elasticity, allowing the spine to slide even further out of place.

Knowing that their son's condition would only get worse, his parents looked for help.

They went through five doctors in their quest. Each said Brian would need spinal fusion surgery to permanently straighten his spine, but also refused to perform the surgery because of the complexity of the case.

They finally found a willing doctor in Loyola University Medical Center surgeon Anthony Rinella.

"A lot of patients don't realize there are people there who can help them," Rinella said. "But (Brian) needed a little bit more than the average surgery."

The operation at the Maywood hospital took 11 hours.

Metal rods extending from Brian's shoulder to his hip were inserted on either side of his spine and connected by 21 screws.

Rinella removed pieces of bone from the teenager's hip and used them to help fuse spinal column.

The surgery took away some of Brian's mobility — he can barely bend at the back and has limited torso rotation — but the procedure also ensured that his spine would remain straight.

"It's the lesser of two evils," said Dan Melko, Brian's father.

At a Feb. 22 checkup at Loyola Primary Care Center, Dan Melko unstrapped Brian's torso brace while the familywaited to see Rinella.

"You want some water or something, Bri?" Dan asked as his son winced in pain.

The procedure gave Brian nearly 5 more inches in height. He is now 6 feet, 4 inches tall and growing. But it also gave him intense pain from the stretched nerves, which will take at least two more months to heal.

Rinella checked Brian's height and vital signs before taking him to the X-ray room to see the results of the surgery.

As Brian waited, he passed the time by showing the nurses some of his extraordinary flexibility, which is a result of Marfan syndrome. One trick involved bending his thumb back to touch his forearm.

"That's how he meets new friends," said Brian's mother, Jamie Melko.

While it will still be a few more weeks before Brian is able to go back to Glenbard North High School, he's expected to live a relatively normal life.

"Even though he's sore today," Rinelia said, "he's doing very well."

- Judy