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Experimental surgery lets young skater pursue her passion

Raegan Shepherd will be in the spotlight Saturday, doing what she loves to do.

The 12-year-old Port Huron resident will perform with the Port Huron Figure Skating Club, spinning and twirling across the ice at McMorran Arena during the club’s annual show. Performances are at 1 and 7 p.m.

But what most spectators won’t know was seven weeks ago, Raegan had experimental scoliosis surgery.

“It’s really a newer surgery that people are not aware of,” said Raegan’s mom, Leann. “She was back on the ice in five weeks.

“She had an over 100-degree curve in her spine. Today, it’s 37 1/2 degrees.”

 Scoliosis is a disorder in which there is a sideways curve of the spine. Curves can be S-shaped or C-shaped. In most people, the cause of the curve is not known.

Leann Shepherd said her daughter had the experimental surgery Jan 8 — “A date I’ll never forget” — at St. Peter’s University Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

The surgery, and Dr. Baron Lonner, a scoliosis specialist at Mount Sinai Health Systems in New York, recently were in the news when champion ballroom dancer Anastasia Machenko, 17, was featured in an ABC News report.

According to the news report, Machenko’s upper spine had 76-degree curve and her lower spine had a 66-degree curve. After her treatment, Marchenko said she hopes to continue her dancing career.

Lonner’s treatment, which is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, is called tethering. It uses screws attached to the vertebrae and flexible cords to pull the spine into alignment.

Shepherd said standard surgery for scoliosis involves placing metal rods on either side of the spine and using a piece of hipbone to fuse the most affected vertebrae together. The drawback is loss of flexibility and mobility.

“Because she was such an active 12-year-old, we couldn’t see her losing mobility,” she said. “You can’t bend from side to side when you have rods on either side of your spine.”

She said she and her husband, Scott, found out about the treatment from Raegan’s figure skating coach.

“They put a screw in each vertebrae that is affected by the curve and attach a tether, a rope basically, through each screw and pull it tight as far as they can get it for the most effectiveness,” Shepherd said.

She said Raegan was cleared to return to the ice five weeks after the surgery.

“She loves figure skating, she’s good at it and she feels comfortable out there,” Shepherd said.

Raegan had competed in November before the surgery and had tested up to senior level.

“I’m amazed by how much easier some of the things are for her to accomplish now,” Shepherd said.

“Her spiral was the most beautiful I’ve ever seen it. I screamed out loud in the arena.”

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