Like many teenagers, Austin Dunlop is a sports fan. The 15-year-old Whittier boy with a keen sense of humor loves baseball and could sit and watch the Angels play for hours. But unlike many teenagers, Austin has had his health challenges: autism, seizures and severe scoliosis, or sideways curving of the spine. “Austin is non-verbal. He communicates through his facial expressions, use of sound and a special typing program on his iPad,” says Laura Dunlop, Austin’s mother.

What Is Scoliosis?

Scoliosis is one of the most commonly treated spine deformities. More than 80 percent of cases – including Austin’s – have no known cause. When spinal curves exceed 40 to 50 degrees and the skeleton has matured, scoliosis surgery is considered.

With the support of Austin’s grandparents, Jane and Jim Sidoni, Laura first realized something was wrong with Austin’s spine two and a half years ago. After consulting with Austin’s primary care physician, they were referred to the pediatric orthopedic specialists at Miller Children’s Hospital Long Beach.

“With a spinal curve of about 60 degrees, there was no question that Austin needed spinal fusion surgery. The scoliosis was starting to affect Austin’s balance and would only get worse, causing pain and affecting his lung function,” says Torin Cunningham, MD, medical director of pediatric orthopedic surgery at Miller Children’s.

Sense of Relief

When Austin’s family initially learned that he needed surgery, they were extremely concerned. In addition to the normal fears that loved ones feel, they were uncertain how Austin himself would react to the news of his procedure and hospital stay, surrounded by people he did not know.

“We knew his recovery in the hospital would take at least a week, maybe longer. Being autistic, you just never know how he is going to respond to something that is not part of his normal, daily routine,” says Jane.

With the help of Dr. Cunningham and Kathleen Mais, R.N., pediatric orthopedic specialty nurse at Miller Children’s, Austin’s family quickly found peace of mind. With fully-integrated, state-of-the-art care for children from birth to 21 years of age, the entire team of health care providers at the Pediatric Orthopedic Center at Miller Children’s immediately recognized Austin’s unique needs.

“We gave Austin a guided tour of the hospital, called in child life specialists, and made sure all of the questions he typed out on his iPad were answered. Our goal was to minimize surprises,” says Mais.

Exceptional Orthopedics

The spinal deformities program in the Pediatric Orthopedic Center at Miller Children’s has helped thousands of young patients with severe scoliosis. Led by Dr. Cunningham, the board-certified pediatric orthopedic surgeons cover the entire spectrum of orthopedics. Kids needing orthopedic trauma care, hip reconstruction, sports injury treatment and limb deformity correction find expert care focused on complete recoveries.

“We had a lot of questions. Everyone was so patient and caring. They took the time to explain what was happening every step of the way,” says Jane. “They made Austin feel comfortable. I could see it in his eyes and, for that, I am so grateful.”

Austin's Back

During an eight-hour procedure, Dr. Cunningham corrected Austin’s curvature using metal rods and screws as well as a bone graft to allow the vertebrae to fuse to one another in order to maintain the alignment.

After the operation, Austin worked with physical therapists until he was comfortable walking on his own. He is now back in school, excelling in his science class and looking forward to going to Disneyland, one of his favorite places.

“We couldn’t have asked for anything more from Miller Children’s,” says Laura. “We felt their compassion.”

For more information, visit Miller Children’s comprehensive pediatric orthopedic care.