Emilee's Story

Sixteen-year-old Emilee Starling loves to dance. Whether it is jazz, tap, ballet or contemporary, the high school junior says she cannot imagine life without dancing.

After spine surgery, young dancer back in the spotlight

Emilee Starling

For those who see Starling today as she competes in national dance contests, it might be hard to believe she had major spine surgery just one year ago at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital.

“It has been such an incredible journey for Emilee,” says Mary Spaniola, Starling’s dance instructor at Jordan Center Dance in Cleveland. “To see her return to the studio and make the progress that she has made, it is amazing. Her story is one of a kind.”

A worsening problem

At age 9, Starling was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic scoliosis, or a curvature of the spine. The condition did not limit her activities or her ability to dance. However, doctors monitored the progression of the spinal curve.

Doctors fitted Starling with a brace at age 11 to try to prevent the curve from worsening. In the years that followed, Starling and her family moved from Connecticut to Cleveland, where they met with Jochen Son-Hing, MD, a pediatric orthopaedic surgeon at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital.

When Dr. Son-Hing first met Starling, her spinal curve was about 30 degrees. Despite the back brace she had been wearing for two years, Starling’s curve continued to worsen. The curve eventually extended past a 45-degree angle – a critical tipping point.

“If a spinal curvature passes 45 degrees by the time the patient reaches skeletal maturity, it could mean serious, lifelong issues,” Dr. Son-Hing says.

“The curvature could continue to progress and eventually distort the rib cage so badly that a patient begins to have respiratory problems.” To prevent long-term problems, Dr. Son-Hing recommended that Starling undergo surgery. It was a tearful day, says Starling’s father, Ray.

“I was pretty scared,” he says.

Correcting the curve

In the summer of 2011, Starling underwent posterior spinal instrumentation and fusion surgery. Dr. Son-Hing calls the procedure the “gold standard of care” for a patient like Starling.

“We knew her curvature would continue to progress, so we wanted to address it now, while she is young and the curve is relatively small and not too stiff,” Dr. Son-Hing says.

The surgery involved making an incision along Starling’s spine. Then, Dr. Son-Hing placed metal attachment points along the spine. Titanium rods were inserted through slots in the attachment points. Using the rods, Dr. Son-Hing manipulated the spine into a straighter position. Bone graft was placed along the straightened areas of the spine. Over time, the bone graft fuses the spine, making the spine permanently straight. The procedure can cure scoliosis. And in Starling’s case, it did.

“At UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital, we are constantly evaluating our outcomes, and we have done a lot of work to make sure we are on the leading edge,” Dr. Son-Hing says. “We are the number one academic center in Northeast Ohio when it comes to pediatric scoliosis. This means we have published the most research in the region on pediatric scoliosis in peer-reviewed journals. And we treat a high volume of pediatric scoliosis cases.”

Back on stage

After surgery, Starling spent nearly a week in the hospital. “The initial recovery period was tough, but the surgery went smoothly and Dr. Son-Hing made me feel very comfortable,” Starling says. “It was definitely nice to have my surgery at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital.”

After only three months, Starling was back in the dance studio – and today she is back in the spotlight.

“We could not have asked for anything better,” says Mr. Starling.

son-hing-jochen Jochen Son-Hing, MD
Pediatric Orthopaedic Surgeon
UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital
Assistant Professor, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine

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