A 34-year-old Irish woman from Co. Louth has just become the first adult in the world to receive a magnetic, remote-controlled spine to treat her scoliosis.
Deirdre McDonnell was told she wouldn’t live past age seven – she had her first surgery at six weeks old after being diagnosed with congenital scoliosis, which affects roughly one in 10,000 newborns.
After a lifetime of suffering and invasive surgeries, the Drogheda woman can now stand tall for the first time due to a pioneering MAGEC operation. In June, Doctors inserted a magnetic rod into her spine that can be controlled externally and, over a few months, it straightened the curvature at regular intervals.
“The operation has completely changed my life. Before, I could only walk short distances without being in pain but now I love to walk everywhere,” McDonnell said.
“After more than 30 years of operations and taking painkillers, I’m finally hopeful for the future.”
An estimated 273 million people worldwide suffer from scoliosis – symptoms include a curved spine at varying degrees depending on severity (often shaped like an S or a question mark), a prominent rib cage or shoulder blades, and uneven arm and leg lengths.
Up until McDonnell’s surgery, this procedure had only been performed on children as it was thought to only be effective for early onset scoliosis, which is usually diagnosed before age ten.
Since her first surgery at six weeks old, McDonnell underwent eight more painful and invasive operations to lengthen and straighten her spine. She had been training at college to become a teacher, but her condition left her unable to work, the Irish Mirror said.
“Things got so bad that my doctor told me that if he didn’t operate, I’d be dead within ten years,” she said.
“Because my spine was curved at 130 degrees, it formed into a C-shape and my lungs didn’t have room to expand so they never grew to full size. At my worst, my lungs were operating at only 30% of what they should have been.
“This meant that I was constantly poorly with pneumonia and chest infections. Doctors said they didn’t know what else they could do.”
Though the operation had never been performed on adults, doctors at Tallaght Hospital in Dublin didn’t see any other option. They secured funding from the Health Service Executive (HSE) and performed the three-hour operation last June.
“This is a big step forward for us,” said Doctor Patrick Kiely, orthopedic surgeon at Tallaght Hospital.
“The largest benefit of MAGEC rod technology is that it removes the need for repeat operations. With the rod, once the initial procedure has been carried out, the patient doesn’t have to undergo any more incisions,” he said.
The MAGEC rod is manufactured by Ellipse Technologies in California, whose aim is to cut costs of repeat surgeries in addition to changing the lives of those suffering from scoliosis.
“The spine is straightened externally using a remote control, which is painless and is performed without anesthesia. This in turn minimizes the risk of infection and limits the impact of the procedure on the patient,” Dr. Kiely said.
“I feel so lucky to have been able to have this operation – it really has changed my life,” said a now healthy McDonnell.
“Before my dad passed away in 2009, he told me that he hoped I’d one day get my dream of living a normal life. I just hope I’m making him proud.”
“I’m no longer in pain, and I feel so much more confident in myself. Even little things like being able to wear pretty dresses or sit comfortably have made such a change,” she said.