Adults don’t get to wake up three inches taller. But what if you did?
Yellowknifer Sarah Kalnay-Watson knows the answer.
The good news is it involves an enjoyable shopping trip. The bad news relates to the bathroom. And what’s an extra three inches in the bedroom? We’ll find out.
First, a little background:
At the age of 33, Sarah’s worsening scoliosis — a type of spinal deformity — led a specialist with three decades’ experience to spend eight hours turning her spine from a winding mountain pass into a comparative highway.
Four months after that December operation, Sarah still has more than half a year of recovery to go. But now is the time to reflect — from her new, great height — on the battle to conquer 20 years of agony.
“I was about 12 years old when I started getting back pains,” says Sarah, who was born in Ottawa but raised inYellowknife.
“I was a pretty athletic kid. Soccer, hockey, basketball, canoeing, rock climbing. We figured it was from the rowing I was doing, a pulled muscle or something.
“My doctor bent me over, ran her hand down my back and she could tell just from doing that. I had scoliosis.”
The unusual spinal curve known as scoliosis is, broadly speaking, either present at birth or appears around puberty. It causes a lot of pain, may interfere with your organs and can have a big impact on your appearance.
The National Scoliosis Foundation claims one person in 40 is affected. Separate statistics suggest only one in 400 will have a case severe enough to warrant surgery.
Many of those involve children, rather than adults, where surgery is reserved for cases unresponsive to anything else.
Doctors initially told Sarah her scoliosis was too mild. However, things changed.
Sarah’s spine, pre-surgery | Photos courtesy Sarah Kalnay-Watson
“In high school it became more evident — at least to me,” she says. “I had massive body issues growing up. I wore baggy shirts or sweaters, I thought I was on the chubby side, and I was scared that people would notice it.
“Up to my early 30s, I was probably still trying to hide the condition I had.
“Dating was always awkward because I would wonder, in the back of my mind, if they would be turned off by what they saw once it wasn’t hidden behind clothes any more.
“But when I saw the last X-ray before surgery, that took my breath away. I could see the difference, from 12 years old to 33. It was worse and worse.”
Sarah may have her daughter to thank for getting her to the operating table.
Prudence was born on January 25, 2013. The labour featured a well-aimed parting kick during the interpretive dance segment of her exit.
“I could feel the moment when she actually shifted my spine,” says Sarah. When doctors checked, things had moved enough to require surgery — at last. “Maybe one day I’ll thank her.”
It’s a two-year wait to get specialist surgery in Edmonton. Sarah spent some of that time with a counsellor, dealing with postpartum depression and the worry of life-changing surgery ahead. She also spent a year preparing in the gym.
“She came in with her husband and told us she needed to lose some weight and get in better shape before this major, major surgery,” says Kelly Robertson, who runs Breakaway Fitness on 48th Street.
“She was very dedicated. She came in every day. We got to know her over the year and we followed her journey.”
That year of work, slowly shedding pounds and strengthening abdominal muscles, gave way to an eight-hour operation on December 9, 2015.
Orthopaedic surgeon Dr James Mahood sliced Sarah’s back open, rearranged her spine and effectively nailed it into place with the help of twin titanium rods.
“When they said they were going to put some pins in her back, I was thinking like a number-eight screw or something,” says Sarah’s father, Michael, who travelled with her for the operation.
“Then they showed me the X-rays and there were 20 spikes as big as your finger in there. That was pretty shocking.
Sarah’s spikes, post surgery | Photos courtesy Sarah Kalnay-Watson
“They had her clamped into this frame, rolled her over, and used power tools to drill holes and thread bolts in that bond with your bone. Scary.”
You might think that kind of treatment would put you out of action for a while. Yet, the following morning, a giant arose.
Sarah Kalnay-Watson, standing at 170.5 cm — up from 163 cm the previous day — was helped out of her bed and invited to stand by a physiotherapist.
Gaining that kind of height overnight is not an experience for which anyone has much frame of reference. How did it feel?
“I could tell, when I stood up for the first time, that I was taller,” Sarah remembers.
“It was insane. Your centre of gravity changes. Your head is aware that it’s in a different zone and walking becomes a completely different activity.
“They had a mirror in my bathroom. I wheeled myself in and I took off my robe to see. The emotional part was when I found out I had a waist. I had never had a waist before.”
Sarah, straightened | Photos courtesy Sarah Kalnay-Watson
Michael adds: “I was holding the walker for her as she stood up, and I was trying to look her in the eye to give her some support – but I was looking at her teeth.
“Every time, I had to consciously look up. She was that much taller.”
Her first stop on being released from hospital? Clothing stores.
“I loved it,” says Sarah. “It was so weird. I literally had to walk in and say I had no idea what size I was.”
Not everything, however, improves with titanium rods. Sarah has more than once struck her head while getting into cars, and that is not the half of it.
“You never realize how much you use the centre of your body to move things until you can’t use it,” she says, before noting: “I can’t wipe my bum easily. Since you can’t bend, you can’t get over there.”
OK. One has to ask: how about the bedroom mechanics?
“Oh yeah! They’re better. Things are more aligned — where they’re supposed to be.”
Sarah is now back at her GNWT post, juggling work as a labour market training coordinator with her own two businesses: production firm Black Swan Films and wedding planning company Let Me Knot.
But it’ll be December this year before she can declare herself out of rehab—and that’s assuming all goes well. She remains a regular at the gym. There are still many things she cannot do.
One of them is picking up her daughter, now three years old.
“Even now, I’m not allowed to pick her up,” says Sarah.
“At first it was hard for Pru to understand it. Early on, she turned to me and said, ‘Mommy, I miss you picking me up.’ I didn’t know how much she enjoyed it until that moment.
“Now, she’s counting down to my next appointment, when I think I’ll be cleared to pick her up. She tells me she’s looking forward to that.”