Kayleigh Hutcheson was known by her family and friends as the “athletic one.” Growing up, she participated in every sport she encountered, from volleyball to golf to cheer, perfecting her athletic prowess along the way.
By the time she reached high school, she was focused on just one: volleyball. She was an all-around player and excelled as the star hitter for her team. Volleyball was her sanctuary to relieve stress, socialize and pursue her passion. Between school season, junior Olympics season and summer workouts, she always had her feet on the court and a hand on the ball.
“I cherished the feeling I got when I’d get an ace on a jump-serve or dive for the ball to play out a successful dig,” said Kayleigh, who played travel volleyball since the 4th grade. “The rush I got when I had the perfect hit that the other team failed to pick up was so rewarding. It gave me purpose and a sense of identity.”
Sadly, it all came to a crashing halt in December of her junior year at Hoover High School when she was faced with the decision to continue her athletic career or undergo surgery to treat her scoliosis. After surgery, she’d be on the sidelines for 6 months recovering and wouldn’t be able to jump back in where she left off due to fierce competition.
“It was embarrassing because my scoliosis was visible in my jersey,” she said. “Plus, I started to experience stiffness after an intense practice or game, so it was difficult to continue hitting or serving at the next practice. I knew I wasn’t going to play volleyball in college, so treating my scoliosis now was the right decision.”
Kayleigh was diagnosed with scoliosis at the age of 9. While walking ahead with friends on a family trip to Cedar Point, her mom noticed Kayleigh’s hips and shoulder’s weren’t lined up. When they got home, her mom lined her spine with lipstick and saw firsthand the extent of its curve.
A friend with scoliosis referred the family to Dr. Patrick Riley, Sr., a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Akron Children’s Hospital. It wasn’t long after that Kayleigh was sleeping in a night brace to help prevent the curve from worsening. Unfortunately by age 14, her curve had increased from 12 to 36 degrees. It was then Dr. Riley became more aggressive with treatment and put her in a day brace, as well.
“That’s when I started to get frustrated with my condition and became insecure,” said Kayleigh. “Sleepovers were strange and uncomfortable for me, and I stopped wearing the day brace because I was stubborn and didn’t want to deal with it.”
But when her curve reached surgery range at 55 degrees, Kayleigh knew she had to face the spinal fusion surgery to prevent her scoliosis from getting worse into adulthood. Plus, she’d have a chance for a quicker recovery due to her young age.
“We worried about the long-term effects of surgery,” said Keena Hutcheson, Kayleigh’s mom. “But, we talked to previous patients of Dr. Riley’s who had success with the surgery. They assured us they could do everything that they did before, so we felt confident moving forward.”
So on Dec. 14, 2016, Kayleigh underwent spinal fusion surgery. Dr. Riley and his team placed 2 titanium rods on either side of her spine, secured with 16 screws to keep her spine straight. With her spine lined up, they then fused the vertebrae in her upper back.
After surgery, she had to take it easy for 6 months. The rods and screws were placeholders — until her spine healed into a solid piece of bone — and she would risk breaking them with rapid movement.
“Because it was her upper back, she still has a few vertebrae at the bottom of her spine so she can do things like bend over and touch her toes,” said Dr. Riley. “She could continue to play sports, but it’d be harder because she wouldn’t have the same mobility to jump and dive for the ball. She’d have to alter her play.”
After surgery and the 6-month recovery, picking up her athletic career where she left off was unrealistic and Kayleigh began to lose sight of who she was.
“I didn’t recognize myself without knee pads and tennis shoes,” she said. “Sports had taught me so much: how to be a leader, teammate and friend, but most importantly, how to love something and put all my passion and drive into every play. Without sports, I was irrelevant.”
But just like any other roadblock Kayleigh hit throughout her athletic career, she persevered to the other side and came out stronger than ever. This time was no different. Instead of feeling defeated, she took all those lessons learned and poured them into an interest in the arts.
With a sudden abundance of free time, Kayleigh got involved in Hoover High’s Yearbook Club and soon became the North Canton high school’s first student art curator.
“I realized there’s so much more to art than putting a brush to canvas,” she said. “I discovered an infatuation with graphic design and photography, and I began to take my mandatory art classes more seriously and even took up some voluntary art classes on the side.”
In one of her art classes, she was inspired to create a sculpture representing her spine surgery. Using copper plumbing screws and rods — similar to the ones placed in her own back to keep her spine straight — she constructed a 3-dimensional vertical spine placed atop a wooden block.
Her sculpture, Spinal Tap, was 1 of 4 art pieces in her class that her teacher submitted to the Cleveland Clinic’s eXpressions™ Art Program, an educational initiative that engages high school students in the creative translation of research studies conducted by Cleveland Clinic summer interns. She received the top Blue Ribbon award for her piece, which was displayed in the hospital’s eXpressions eXhibition.
Now, Kayleigh is being called the “artsy one.”
“Now people who meet me for the first time can’t believe that I was once an athlete,” she said. “My life as an athlete is a big part of who I am today and I am still coming to terms with the fact that it is over. But, I’ve realized my passions don’t have to become my identity. Instead, they should be a part of me that shapes who I am today.”