Kailey Elfstrum, 20, has been on the move and loving it since she was a little girl. She had been a high-level competitive gymnast from ages 7 to 12, training more than 20 hours a week. Her mother, Lisa Elfstrum, describes her as “a very focused young girl working toward a dream.”
But pursuing that dream became more challenging when Kailey was in seventh grade in St. Louis and had what her mom describes as “a horrific fall doing a vault full speed.”
“She landed upside down, on her neck from 12 feet in the air,” Lisa recalls.
The accident led to persistent shooting pains, a one-year break from her full-scale gymnastics training and her mother’s vigorous search for the most effective help for her daughter.
Over the years, Kailey saw several orthopedic specialists, neurosurgeons and other doctors. She was diagnosed with spondylolisthesis, a condition in which one of the vertebrae slips out of place, sometimes causing pressure on a nerve. Her displacement was believed to be caused by earlier, undetected stress fractures.
Extensive physical therapy followed, as well as chiropractic treatments. In high school, she transitioned from gymnastics to cheerleading, which required less intensive training. She dreamed of one day performing at the highest level: college coed cheerleading.
When the Elfstrums moved to Oswego in Kailey’s junior year, she continued cheerleading, but the back problems worsened.
“She had shooting pains and numbness and tingling in her legs and feet,” Lisa says. “It got to the point (where) she couldn’t walk, stand or sit without pain for more than 15 minutes at a time.”
They consulted orthopedic spine surgeon Ronjon Paul, of DuPage Medical Group, who sees patients at the Edward Hospital Spine Center.
“Surgery in these cases is considered only after other less invasive options have failed, especially in someone so young,” Dr. Paul says. “Kailey’s bones had slipped far forward and the condition wasn’t responding to treatments.”
In fall 2011, Elfstrum’s senior year in high school, Paul performed a minimally invasive lumbar fusion at Edward. The goal of this surgery, which required two tiny incisions less than an inch and a half each, was to fuse Kailey’s problematic vertebrae together to form a single, solid bone.
“Dr. Paul (said he) wasn’t going to cut my muscles during surgery, he was only going to move them to the side,” Kailey says.
After the surgery, Elfstrum faced physical therapy and months of wearing a brace over much of her torso. The moment of truth came an exceptionally short 33 weeks after her surgery when she tried out for her college cheerleading squad. Her efforts paid off. She secured a place on the team and a scholarship. She now cheers for Northwest Missouri State University’s national championship team.
“With Dr. Paul’s expertise and care, the dedication of her physical therapy team, and her determination and hard work, she is a walking, talking, cheering miracle,” Lisa says.
“Now I have my life back,” Kailey adds.
The volume of spine surgeries performed at Edward is among the highest in the state. To meet this demand, Edward’s orthopedic department will move in July to a larger space with 35 patient beds and a physical therapy gym. It will include a unit for spine surgery patients, with Paul as its medical director.
Paul recently was named to Castle Connolly’s regional Top Doctors list. Castle Connolly Medical Ltd. is the publisher of America’s Top Doctors and other consumer guides to help people find the best health care. Physicians are selected for the Top Doctors lists based on nominations by other physicians and extensive review by Castle Connolly’s physician-led research team.
For more information, visit www.edward.org/spinecenter.
Health Aware is a weekly column submitted by Edward Hospital.