Her slender body cut through the water with the ease of a fish. Michele Pease-Downey spent her life swimming. No one would know she didn’t even touch a pool for six long years because her scoliosis wouldn’t let her swim laps.
“It broke me,” Pease-Downey said while sitting alongside a Carlsbad pool. “Couldn’t swim. Couldn’t really walk very well.”
It was a terrible blow, physically and mentally, for a woman who swam for the University of Cincinnati and just missed being a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team. Pease-Downey said she couldn’t swim for six years as the pain in her legs forced her to use a cane and a wheelchair.
“It caused her daily pain,” said Joseph Osorio, M.D.
Dr. Osorio, a UC San Diego Health neurosurgeon, took one look at Pease-Downey and knew she had scoliosis. He said her spine curved so far to the side that it pushed one side of her lungs and made it hard to breathe.
“She was in pain all the time,” he sighed. “She couldn’t sit still.”
Dr. Osorio is also the director of Spinal Oncology and Deformity Surgery for UC San Diego Health. He pioneered a new procedure that use patient-specific rods that screw into each vertebra and straighten the patient’s back. He said they use scans of the patient’s back and specialized software to design each rod.
Osorio said traditional surgeries use a straight steel rod that doesn’t conform to an individual’s body or backbone. Pease-Downey was one of his first attempts at the procedure in San Diego in February of 2020.
“I had 17 levels fused. So, it’s literally my entire back!” exclaimed Pease-Downey, who is now in her early 60s.
The only hitch in Michele’s recovery was the COVID-19 pandemic. It forced Pease-Downey to suffer through much of her physical therapy on her own.
However, four months after Dr. Osorio’s surgery, Pease-Downey found herself back in the pool for the first time in six years.
“I was crying while I was swimming because it was so emotional for me,” she smiled.
“I’m incredibly grateful that I can help people like her,” said Osorio.
Osorio said UC San Diego Health has conducted roughly 200 similar surgeries since Michele, and now the patient-specific rod technique is used by a few nationwide.
“For the complex spine procedures, we have a solution,” he said.
It has helped people like Pease-Downey return to the water, where she already intends to compete in the Masters National Swimming Championships in North Carolina in 2022.
“It’s changed my life,” she concluded.