While most kids her age were outside savoring the last days of summer before school started, 10-year-old Shannon Stapleton, of Mansfield, was spending her days and nights at Akron Children’s Hospital.
Shannon’s journey began July 21 when she underwent the first of 2 scoliosis surgeries. That’s when pediatric orthopedic surgeon Dr. Kenneth Bono , of Akron Children’s Spine Program, attached a metal halo device to her skull to help slowly stretch and straighten the severe “S” shape of her spine.
“The curve in her spine was sort of like an accordion crunching down on her organs,” said her mom, Sharon. “It had gotten to the point where she couldn’t really take a deep breath. She couldn’t touch her toes and her range of motion was limited.”
Shannon was diagnosed with scoliosis about 2 years ago when her cardiologist Dr. C.R. Patel noticed the “S” curve of her spine during an annual appointment. He referred her to Dr. Bono, who diagnosed her with a nearly 100-degree curvature.
Every day leading up to her spinal fusion, Dr. Bono applied 3 lbs. of traction to her halo device to help lengthen and stretch her spine so that it would be easier to manipulate during the procedure.
“Usually we don’t attempt a spinal fusion until the child has reached puberty so we know they’ve had more time to grow, but Shannon’s case was so severe and affecting her breathing,” said Dr. Bono. “It’s an 8-hour procedure that includes an incision the length of her spine. We manipulate her spine and reposition it and then secure it with rods and screws.”
The art of distraction
Art therapy helped Shannon get through her 27-day hospital stay and painful surgeries. In fact, her colorful anime-style sketches and Doggie Brigade trading cards created vibrant murals on the walls of her hospital room.
“For Shannon, anime is a creative form of expression and a healthy personal interest,” said Molly Kohut, an art therapist with Akron Children’s Emily Cooper Welty Expressive Therapy Center. “Anime often represents dramatic emotions and I think Shannon connects with this, as she is an expressive individual who is very aware of her own emotions.”
Shannon would light up at even the mention of a visit from Kohut.
“She likes it when Molly comes into her room,” Sharon said. “They laugh, kid around and joke. They look at each other’s creations they make. I think drawing is a huge therapy for her and an opportunity for her to express herself and put her feelings down on paper.”
On the day before her spinal fusion, Shannon told Kohut that she wanted to draw a tiger in anime style.
“I was thinking tigers are brave and I’ve got to be brave for surgery tomorrow,” Shannon said.
She tried to doodle a tiger head, and then decided it looked more like a koala bear. Kohut then changed gears. She pulled out her paints from a traveling art kit and asked Shannon to pick a color that matched her mood.
Shannon chose a dark blue and started working on an abstract painting.
“I picked blue because I’m feeling sad,” said Shannon.
Her tone was lighthearted, but there was an intensity in the focus on her painting.
“Art is a vehicle for feelings and processing,” Kohut said. “We’ve been working with alcohol-based ink, which is a fluid medium and great for experimenting with colors. Shannon has connected the darker colors to the anxiety about her upcoming surgery, and she has linked the lighter colors to her hopes for what it will be like after surgery and recovery.”
4-legged friends provide comfort
In addition to the art therapy and activities, visits from the the Doggie Brigade provided a welcome distraction. One dog, Buddy, felt so at home during their visit that he fell asleep on her chest.
“I miss my pug, Bugsy, so much,” Shannon said. “The Doggie Brigade visits always make me happy.”
On Aug. 7, she even got to meet hospital legend, Petie the Pony.
“What a surprise to see a pony in my hospital room,” said Shannon, who was by then experiencing 50 lbs. of traction. “And I even got a stuffed animal to remember the visit by.”
Worth the wait
Two weeks after her spinal fusion and a week after Shannon returned home, the Stapletons headed back to Akron Children’s for a surgery follow-up meeting with Dr. Bono.
Sharon and her parents could tell the surgery was successful.
“It is just unbelievable the difference it has made in her appearance,” said Marvin, Shannon’s dad. “She seems so much taller and her posture is so much straighter than it was before.”
They are all anxious to see if Dr. Bono agrees. Shannon returns from her X-ray jubilant after the tech let her look at the scan.
“You are going to be blown back by it,” she tells her parents. “My spine looks so much straighter now.”
Sure enough, the numbers agree. Her curvature went from 100 degrees to 37 degrees, and she’s now 2 ½ inches taller, standing eye-to-eye with her mom at 5 ft. 1 in.
“I used to look like a snake and now I look like a giraffe,” said Shannon, who’s overcome with emotion at the positive transformation.
“You look awesome,” Dr. Bono said. “Your lungs have so much more room now. Before they were getting squished. You should have a much easier time breathing now. I think our efforts to straighten the spine were greatly enhanced by the weeks in traction. No doubt about it.”
Soon Shannon will head back to Maddison Middle School, where she’ll get to share her unique story of how she spent her summer vacation.