Straightening Out a Case of Scoliosis

By any measure, Toni Blankenship was a complicated patient. After a hysterectomy at age 40 triggered early menopause, she started to develop osteoporosis, which more typically starts at a later age. She was also underweight, which didn’t help her bone strength, and she developed a painful curvature in her spine — adult onset scoliosis. By age 60 she’d had two laminectomies and a spinal fusion, but they had not relieved her pain. A few years later, however, thanks to Dr. Kai-Ming Fu and the team at Och Spine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, Toni is upright  not perfect, she says, but walking, driving, taking care of herself, and much, much happier than she was before.

scoliosis curvature

When viewed from front or back, a healthy spine is completely straight (left); in a patient with scoliosis (right), the spine can be seen to curve laterally.

Toni and her husband, Vaughn, live in western New Jersey, closer to Pennsylvania than to New York. It made sense to seek medical care close to home, so when her back trouble started she saw local doctors in search of solutions. Her doctors tried different medications, then the laminectomies, then the fusion. Six months after the fusion, however, the hardware was protruding through her skin and had to be removed. That, she says, is when she became completely debilitated.

“I couldn’t drive, because I couldn’t hold myself up enough to see over the steering wheel,” Toni says. “I was becoming a hunchback, and it was hard to breathe. I was getting physical therapy but I couldn’t even get up off the PT table. I couldn’t do anything for myself. My girlfriends and I used to go away twice a year together, renting a house in the summer and visiting Atlantic City in the fall  I couldn’t do that anymore. I was getting so depressed, but the doctor just seemed to wash his hands of me. He said I needed someone else but he didn’t have any suggestions. I thought my life was over.”

Toni and her daughter, Shawna, started doing online research on doctors who might be able to help — and they knew it was time to look beyond their own neighborhood and seek out experts at larger medical centers. They discovered that many scoliosis experts are specialists in pediatric or adolescent scoliosis, not the adult variety. Then they found a story about a 60-year-old New York endodontist who had found relief from his newly developed scoliosis with Dr. Kai-Ming Fu. (See I Was Like the Leaning Tower of Pisa Before!)

Kai-Ming Fu, MD, PhD

Kai-Ming Fu, MD, PhD

“I was captivated by that story,” says Toni. “I still have a printout of it in my files!” Toni made an appointment to travel to Manhattan to see Dr. Fu.

“Toni was not an easy case,” admits Dr. Fu. “I had some concerns about performing surgery on her, given the state of her osteoporosis, and I told her that. I recommended a twelve-month course of denosumab (Prolia) to try to strengthen her bones before I would operate.”

“Dr. Fu was honest and said he couldn’t make any guarantees,” says Toni. “So much of my spine was affected, almost up to my neck, and he said the screws could pull right out of my soft bones. He told me it’s not magic, and I wondered, how is he ever going to make me straight?”

"I told Dr. Fu I was scared, but he told me I didn’t have to worry unless HE were scared — and he wasn’t.”

After only six months of Prolia, Toni’s condition was becoming more frightening. “The osteoporosis was doing too much damage,” she recalls. “I had fractured two vertebrae and lost three inches in height, so after only six months he agreed to do the surgery.”

Toni had the surgery in October 2022  it was a grueling marathon that took 10 hours, but it was a success. Dr. Fu performed instrumentation from her upper thoracic spine to the pelvis. Multiple osteotomies (cuts in the bone) were required to provide flexibility to straighten her spine. He used the latest technology to ensure success: intraoperative CT scans, spinal navigation, ultrasonic scalpels, and customized preplanned and manufactured instrumentation.

“The surgery worked,” Toni exclaims. “I was so happy!”

Toni Blankenship's before-and-after MRI scans

Toni Blankenship's before-and-after MRI scans, showing hardware extending from her upper thoracic spine to the pelvis

The happiness was dampened by the news that Toni had experienced a not-uncommon complication from the surgery  a leak of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). Some of those leaks resolve on their own, but the majority of them, like Toni’s, require surgical repair. Dr. Fu would perform that surgery as well.

The day of the leak repair surgery, Toni remembers Dr. Fu reassuring her before the procedure. “He asked me why I was crying, and I said it was because I was scared!” says Toni. “He told me I didn’t have to worry unless he were scared  and he wasn’t.”

"Today I’m not perfect, and I know I have limits, but I can drive, I can take care of myself, I can live my life."

Toni spent 23 days in the hospital recovering from the two surgeries  they were long and difficult days, followed by long days of physical therapy and rehabilitation. It was a tough time, she says  and absolutely worth it.

Toni Blankenship

Toni Blankenship

“I would never go back!” she says. “I had no life before the surgery. Today I’m not perfect, and I know I have limits, but I can drive, I can take care of myself, I can live my life. Dr. Fu reminds me that I have to tell my family and friends that I’m very fragile right now  I like to be independent, but he has warned me about how dangerous a fall could be. I don’t do stupid things, like go on amusement park rides, but I can take care of myself.”

A year and a half after the surgery, Toni is enjoying her life. “Family is everything,” she says, and she can finally enjoy hers again  especially now, with a second grandchild on the way. “I don’t take anything for granted,” she says. “But everyone comments on how straight my back is now  Dr. Fu has given me a second chance at life!”

Dr. Fu, recently promoted to full professor, is co-director of the Scoliosis and Spinal Deformity Program at Och Spine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. More about Dr. Fu, including how to request a consultation.

More about adult scoliosis

More about our Scoliosis and Spinal Deformity Program

Toni Blankenship

Weill Cornell Medicine Neurological Surgery 525 East 68 Street, Box 99 New York, NY 10065 Phone: 866-426-7787