Bowing her back against the odds

Severe scoliosis just another challenge
By: Amanda Calzada Placer Herald Correspondent
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Goals and focus were always straight for Sarena Sgambati, even though her spine was not. “Something so frightening has turned out to be life-defining for her,” said Kristie Sgambati, who watched her daughter fight double-massive scoliosis to play the game of soccer. Sgambati’s mother says she immediately noticed the curvature when her daughter removed her sweatshirt one spring day, after a winter growth spurt. An orthopedic spine specialist classified the condition as double-massive scoliosis since there were two curves, one 46 degrees and one 42. Sgambati’s spine looked “like a backward S.” “At first, I didn’t know how serious it was,” said the current Rocklin High senior, who remembers putting the thought in the back of her mind. The doctor said surgery was her choice, as not having it would have meant the athlete would be wheelchair bound at an early age. In the long run, Sgambati decided to take the risks of surgery - the inability to carry children, and the invasion of vital organs into her rib cage. Because the duration of the surgery was between 10-11 hours, Sgambati was placed in intensive care for three days, and stayed in the hospital for one week. During the 2006 procedure, two stainless steel rods were placed through Sgambati’s spine and kept in place by 22 pins. She now bears a scar that runs the whole length of her back. Although four vertebrae in her neck were not fused, the rest of her spine was fused into one solid bone. She is unable to twist or bend. The operation kept her out of school for six weeks. One month following the surgery, an x-ray revealed a second surgery would be required since one of the pins had slipped. It was while heading into that second surgery that Sgambati was told she would no longer be a soccer player, but she decided to challenge that idea. “I like to go for things that aren’t really normal for me. I really had to work to get back to the level of play,” said Sgambati, who has been playing at the select level since third grade and is called a dreamer by her grandmother. Although Sgambati was suspended from soccer for one year, she attended every practice and game her team, the Blue Heat, played. “I remember her getting up early in the morning and trying to run. I would follow her in my car since it was so dark, and she would run. She did get stronger and was finally able to play again,” said Sgambati’s mother, who said it meant the world to her daughter when her coaches, Jenny and Jim Wood, invited her to be on the team during her recovery. Scoliosis, however, was not the only obstacle the defender had to overcome in order to get back on the field. Sgambati made the Rocklin High JV team in both he¬¬¬¬¬r freshman and sophomore years. But she was unable to return to the field her junior year when she was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma, which impacted her running. In conjunction with that, she was receiving physical therapy to alleviate pain from her tilted pelvis. “She never feels sorry for herself,” said Sgambati’s mother, who describes her daughter as quietly confident, positive, and determined. Although Sgambati said she wasn’t going to rely on others after her surgery, she is thankful for the support she gets from her family, team, and friends. Sgambati recalled friends bringing her family meals, surprising her with parties, classmates bringing her a signed banner, and her coaches assuring her a spot had been saved for her on the roster. One of her favorite memories was created by her teammates, who chose to sport rolling backpacks like Sgambati’s during their middle school years. At that time, rolling backpacks were deemed socially inferior to regular backpacks. Now, the Sgambati family serves as a reference for other families going through scoliosis-related surgeries. The family appreciates the on-going support of Kaiser’s Dr. Schiffman and its nurses. Sgambati advises those going through surgery not to be afraid to put their faith in the doctor’s hands. This experience has encouraged Sgambati to enter the medical field. She would like to study nursing at California State University Long Beach. “Always keep going,” she said.