Not being able to ride your bike is never easy but imagine this coupled with a condition that brings with it the very real possibility of leaving you disabled. This was the reality facing talented young Kiwi rider and Specialized Brand Ambassador, Zoe Nathan. Here she tells us her story of severe scoliosis of the spine and her record beating recovery.
I remember the feeling of disbelief. How could I have won? How was it possible? I had just crossed the finish line first U15 girl in the XC of the Secondary schools Nationals. After a few moments of heavy breathing and skepticism, the happiness settled in. The pride. The relief. Relief, because it was my first proper race since having major spinal surgery and I hadn’t bombed out. Relief, because all my hard work had finally paid off.
Now half a year and many successful races later, that race still stands out. It was an end to the fear and self-doubt that all the pain had been for nothing; that I would always be weak, pulled down by the fact that I had had a year off sport due to my scoliosis surgery. That race was also a beginning. I finally realised that I deserved to do well, that I had put in the work, gone above and beyond to ensure that I could ride my bike again, and ride it fast.
About two years earlier, when I was twelve, the doctor had diagnosed the weird lump on one side of my back as severe scoliosis. This meant it wasn’t really a weird lump, but that the muscles on that side of my spine were being compressed as a result of my spine growing in a curve. My parents and I thought at first that it would just take some physio; that it was going to be a minor inconvenience, but fixable with some exercises. That was until I had an x-ray. I saw my spine, glowing an eerie white, traversing across my torso in an s-shape. Mum struggled not to cry. You didn’t have to be a radiologist to see that it was bad.
The inevitable researching came next. I sat curled on the couch at home with the iPad, looking through pages and pages of information about scoliosis and individuals’ own perspectives on it. There were some horror stories, and some inspirational ones, and in the end I really wasn’t sure what to think. It seemed that there were three options for me. I could do nothing, and the curvature of my spine would gradually worsen over time, even to the point where my spine could compress my internal organs and put pressure on my nerves. I could wear a brace, a full torso plastic cast that looked vaguely like a corset (It turned out that my spine was already too curved for a brace to be of any use). Or I could have major surgery. Titanium rods and screws would be used to forcibly straighten the curve and hold my spine in place. Donor bone would be used to fuse my spine over the course of a year.
I kind of ended up doing all three of those things, even if unplanned. When I learnt that I was going to need to have major surgery in Wellington, it was easy enough to pretend I hadn’t already come to that conclusion myself. There was something different about hearing it from Mum and Dad. It hit me like a truck, and there were some tears, and a lot of questions none of us really knew the answer to.
How long will it take to recover? We didn’t know. Could I die having the operation? Could the surgery paralyse me? We didn’t know. But what was perhaps the most important question to me was will I be able to mountain bike again? Another question we didn’t know the answer to. So basically from there it was about making the most of the time until we found out the answers. The year before my diagnosis, my family had gone to Morzine. There were mountains, chairlifts, and a huge network of awesome tracks. Perfect.
I grew up in Christchurch, and Mum and Dad were always super keen mountain bikers. But it wasn’t until we moved to Nelson after the quakes that I started loving the sport, and the trip to France further solidified my commitment to MTB. At eleven I started competing in local XC races. Though I didn’t do any national racing until after my surgery, it had always been one of those dreams that I wanted to work towards. The idea that I might not be able to bike again, or that I would be stuck on only my road bike for all of eternity, was more than a little gutting.
When we found out that I needed major surgery, Mum and Dad hurriedly organised an awesome few weeks in Whistler and Lake Tahoe mountain biking. It was now indefinite when we’d be able to do a mountain biking holiday again. Both places were epic in their own way. But it could only be a small distraction from what was to come next year.
I said earlier that I ended up doing all three of the options for my spine. The first one, doing nothing, was because of the waiting list. It was very long, and both the waiting and my back were becoming painful. By the time I was in Wellington, being prepped for the operation, the curvature of my spine had increased from the original 52° to 78°. I also had developed a rib deformity. During surgery, in which a 25cm metal rod was put in place to fuse ten vertebrae of my spine, they decided that it was better not to fix my ribs, which was fortunate as it would have involved breaking them.
The outcome of surgery was not what the surgeons or I expected. While the aim is not a perfectly straight spine; in fact my lumbar spine still had a significant curve, causing my tailbone to be about 5cm off centre from the base of my skull. This meant a long and intensive rehabilitation.
The days in hospital after surgery are hard to remember, as I was on a lot of painkillers. I do remember that despite all the drugs I still hurt a lot, and it was difficult to move. I had to relearn to walk, as my spinal imbalance tipped me over sideways. At first I found it difficult and exhausting to walk down the hallway. The idea of getting back on my bike seemed a long way off, though by then we knew it was possible. My spinal surgeon had always been positive about me returning to cycling, eventually.
When I returned to Nelson, there was a long recovery ahead of me. For a while, there wasn’t a lot that I could do by myself. I couldn’t get in and out of bed. I needed help to dress and put my shoes on. All the things that I took for granted, things that were once simple, became a chore. That frustrated me badly. It was hard to lose all my independence. To keep active, I had to do short walks down the Maitai daily for rehabilitation. This bored me, and I quickly began to miss my bike.
The first time that I was able to clip into my pedals and go for a spin on the road was two months after my surgery. Mum and I only went for a short ride, but even that was tiring for me. I had lost a lot of strength and fitness in my time healing, and the recovery still wasn’t over, not even close. Even though it wasn’t as easy as it used to be, it was great to finally get out and do something I enjoyed. Rehabilitation became a big part of my time. I did some hydrotherapy at first, which was pretty odd. Me, this thirteen year old, with a whole lot of old men and women who had had hip replacements. I also had lots of physio exercises. I had a twenty minute routine of various exercises to do twice daily. At first it required a lot of nagging to get me to complete the exercises. But after a while I became resigned to doing them, and it was worth it. The exercises were essential for regaining core strength and improving my symmetry and alignment. Lyndon, my physio, has been super supportive and helpful. He cajoled me into doing my exercises. I don’t think that I would have recovered and gotten to the stage that I am at now nearly as quickly without his help.
Four months after surgery, I was back on the mountain bike, eight months earlier than expected. My surgeon hadn’t wanted me to mountain bike for a year originally, but he eventually relented, having confidence in my skill level, and conditional that I wouldn’t do any tracks I was likely to crash on. This was a huge relief, as the idea of not mountain biking for an entire year was pretty depressing. Like the road cycling, at first it was hard work to ride small distances, but I slowly began to build back up, gradually increasing the amount I was riding. Biking was the only time I could really feel free and unrestricted, in more ways than one.
When my surgery didn’t go as planned, we knew there was going to have to be something done about the curve in my back that still remained. Only six weeks after surgery, we were back in Wellington, having my torso coated in plaster. We were taking the third course of action. I was getting a brace made.
The brace was awful. It feels like it is crushing you, pressing in on your ribcage and squashing your lungs. Even breathing is an effort. The edges of it cut into you and chafe uncomfortably, forcing your body into positions that don’t feel natural. Imagine that for a minute. Then imagine it for 20 hours a day. The only four hours in which my torso wasn’t stuck inside a 1kg plastic corset I usually spent most of bent over my handlebars, legs pumping. Cycling would have been impossible to do in the brace. It was like this until after almost five months, the time spent in the brace was decreased to 15 hours a day.
It was a big cause for celebration when in April the next year I finally got to put that thing in the cupboard and close the door on it. The hard work wasn’t over yet, but no longer needing the brace was a big step forward. So I trained, and went into my first national MTB race, Secondary Schools in Dunedin, with no expectations. I was going to try my best, and see how I went. First place was not at all what I had believed was possible. This result was a catalyst for some amazing things. I became a brand ambassador for Specialized. Andy Reid from Village Cycles gives me invaluable training advice. This support has really helped me step up my racing.
Stuff ran an article about me, which was a little daunting, particularly as not many people knew my story. Some in the local mountain biking scene said they had no idea, that I had just disappeared for a year. Everyone we knew was very supportive. But the comments I got online, from all over NZ, were mixed. Most of them were positive and encouraging, but some were negative. A couple of people commented that they were concerned that it was a danger for me to be mountain biking because of my back. Those people had either gone through the surgery themselves or had relatives who had. They spoke about their own surgeries, and how much it has restricted them from doing normal activities. They implied that I shouldn’t be mountain biking so that I didn’t get hurt and have to go through surgery again.
I think that in life we have to take risks. I took a risk by trying to normalise my situation, by getting back on the bike and pushing myself to succeed. And it paid off. Having a realistically positive attitude and not letting my restrictions get the better of me was what lead me to win National Secondary Schools. Since then I have had other successes. For my first year in U17 in the MTB Nationals in Wanaka I placed second and in U16 at Secondary Schools I placed first. But in the end the results don’t matter so much as what was done to get there.
I am not a super rare sort of person. I believe anyone can do what I have done. It was hard, but if I can do it, then so can others. I didn’t let my surgery be the end of me, the end of my passion for cycling. It’s as simple as that. With some effort, attitude, and support, anyone can overcome their difficulties. Anyone can succeed if they really want to.
Words: Zoe Nathan
Photos: Rachael Gurney