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Meet RSM Pursue Your Passion Winner: Celeste McGahan

ARTICLE

Project Management Senior Associate | Boston, MA

Can you imagine spending the last decade or two of your life only looking down – never seeing anything but the pavement and your feet? Think of the blue skies, colorful leaves and the beautiful smiles of your grandchildren that you would miss seeing because the curve of your spine only allows you to look down.  I’m very aware of this possibility, for someday, that might be me.

At the age of 12, as an active kid and gymnast, I learned that I have scoliosis. Scoliosis is a deformity of the spine that often occurs during the growth spurts of puberty. Given the significant degree of the Cobb angles of my lumbar and thoracic curves, it was determined I was a prime candidate for Harrington rod surgery where a metal rod is secured to each vertebrae of the curves to straighten the spine. The surgery is as serious and scary as it sounds so my parents opted for another treatment route. For the next six years I wore a Milwaukee back brace during the day. At night, I slept in Cotrel traction with a 20-pound bag hanging over the headboard of my bed to pull on my head and neck to keep my spine as straight as possible while I tried to sleep. The effort was to prevent the curves from getting worse. The orthopedists were clear that my spine would never be straight or even close to normal and I would live with the effects of scoliosis for the rest of my life.

Upon discharge from the Massachusetts Hospital School’s Milwaukee brace clinic in Canton, MA, at the age of 22, I was told to stay active, strong and to keep my body weight down to live as well as possible with scoliosis. I was warned that pain would be part of aging with scoliosis. I have tried to live by the doctors’ orders. Staying busy isn’t hard with a family of 9. Staying physically fit is often harder to achieve. But in my early 40s I discovered yoga and that has been a great help in my life.

Six years ago, when my 95-year-old grandmother Jennie was moved into a nursing home, (She lived to the age of 100 and six months!), I was reminded about what aging with scoliosis might look like. Several of the residents were hunched over – permanently. Spending time with my grandmother and others in the activity room, I would regularly see residents that could not look up when I said hello. They could not watch the television suspended on the wall. They could not even look out the window to see what was up with our New England weather.

For many of them, the effect of their scoliotic spines was even more tragic than their hunched bodies.  Scoliosis, when severe and worsened with age, affects every part of your body. Scoliosis is associated with headaches, neck pain, back pain, hip pain, knee and leg pain, radicular nerve pain and even depression. With the twist of the spine so goes the ribs, so scoliosis can dramatically contribute to problems with breathing and sleeping as well as digestion. Balance is an issue for all of us as we age. It is even more significant of a problem when aging with a curved spine associated with scoliosis – nothing about the body is in balance. The fact that scoliosis has also been associated with low bone density (osteopenia and osteoporosis), only makes matters worse for potential falls. There can be limitations and difficulties with every day activities, such as walking, lifting and exercising. The hunched back older person that you may cross paths with is dealing with much more than meets the eye.

Each time I visited my grandmother, I wondered if there was some way to help the individuals dealing with the aging scoliotic spine and yoga came to mind. As I work to manage my spine’s own issues, I learned that there is a yoga practice dedicated to those with scoliosis. Since the spine with scoliosis is so different than the normal spine, there is a lot that should be done differently in a yoga practice to compensate for the curves and help the overall health of the spine. The practice can be applied to people of any age and can be done from a chair if needed. Even at an older age there are yoga practices and exercises that can dramatically improve flexibility, strength, posture overall quality of life and, importantly, outlook.

My dream would be to find the time and resources to take Yoga Teacher Training and specialize in Yoga for Scoliosis to have the proper training and to understand the correct way to direct and assist the elderly dealing with scoliosis. My plan and hope would then be to volunteer providing classes at assisted living facilities or nursing homes, like the Zelma Lacey House right here in Charlestown, MA, where RSM’s Boston office is located. I would like to help those suffering with an aging scoliotic spine. This training would not only teach me how to better take care of myself and others, but also, in greatly missing my grandmother, it would provide me an opportunity to spend time with and help older individuals who still have a lot to offer those around them.

Whether or not this is the type of project RSM and the Pursue Your Passion program determine as fitting to support, I am thankful for the opportunity to write about my experience. Maybe those who read this will think differently about the elderly individuals they see living with curved spines. My hope is that I can help someone “look up” again.