Over­com­ing the woes of a curved spine

The Straits Times - - FRONT PAGE - Jan­ice Tai So­cial Af­fairs Cor­re­spon­dent

She had a spine so curved that even when she was stand­ing up, it seemed like she was bow­ing.

The weight of peo­ple’s stares, cou­pled with her extremely hunched pos­ture, made her look down to­wards the ground of­ten.

Ms Nur Afi­fah Mo­hamed Ali, 28, is be­lieved to have one of the most se­vere cases of sco­l­io­sis – a side­ways cur­va­ture of the spine – here.

A cur­va­ture greater than 40 de­grees is seen as se­vere; in 2014, Ms Afi­fah was told the top part of her spine had a 120-de­gree cur­va­ture while the bot­tom was 60 de­grees.

Af­ter years of be­ing called names like “hunch­back”, “old lady” and “camel”, Ms Afi­fah has now re­gained 7cm and can walk a lit­tle taller at 1.55cm, thanks to a 13-hour op­er­a­tion at Sin­ga­pore Gen­eral Hospi­tal in April this year.

She now has three metal rods and 19 screws in her spine. But the cur­va­ture has got bet­ter – at 100 de­grees – and she no longer bat­tles ex­cru­ci­at­ing pain every day.

“I have learnt to ac­cept my con­di­tion and be com­fort­able in my own skin,” said Ms Afi­fah, a free­lance pho­tog­ra­pher.

“Now I can lit­er­ally stand up and an­swer to the bul­lies who used to make fun of me,” she added.

Sco­l­io­sis was in the spot­light last month when Bri­tain’s Princess Eu­ge­nie bared a sur­gi­cal scar in a low­back dress at her wed­ding and spoke about her ex­pe­ri­ence with the con­di­tion.

For Ms Afi­fah, the jour­ney to self­ac­cep­tance was a long one. Even af­ter her surgery, she felt de­pressed and went for coun­selling.

She fears that her con­di­tion may worsen in the fu­ture, lead­ing her to need a wheel­chair or have breath­ing dif­fi­cul­ties.

“The con­di­tion not only af­fected me phys­i­cally, but also emo­tion­ally as I had to bat­tle with in­se­cu­rity and live with un­cer­tainty,” she said.

Her boyfriend broke up with her two years ago, say­ing he was sick of his friends al­ways star­ing at her and her “whin­ing” about be­ing in pain.

Back in Pri­mary 4, Ms Afi­fah, the youngest of three chil­dren, was al­ready walk­ing side­ways due to the pain in her back. Her mother works as a cleaner, while her fa­ther, who also worked as a cleaner, died of a heart at­tack when she was 16.

But it was only in 2006 af­ter her mother took her to the doc­tor that the then Sec­ondary 4 stu­dent was di­ag­nosed with sco­l­io­sis. She went through an eight-hour surgery to cor­rect the 54-de­gree cur­va­ture in the bot­tom part of her spine.

Af­ter the surgery, she could walk with­out trip­ping or fall­ing but her con­di­tion got worse over the years.

By 2013, doc­tors from sev­eral hos­pi­tals did not want to op­er­ate on her as her case was too com­pli­cated.

She was later found to have a cyst in the spinal cord and acromegaly, where the pi­tu­itary gland pro­duces too much growth hor­mone dur­ing adult­hood. This means she has ab­nor­mally large hands and feet – her shoe size is 42 – and the growth has af­fected her spine.

Thank­fully, Dr Reuben Soh from Sin­ga­pore Gen­eral Hospi­tal was will­ing to treat her and un­der­took op­er­a­tions to cor­rect her spine and re­move part of her rib, which had been de­formed by her con­di­tion.

Sco­l­io­sis Sup­port Sin­ga­pore, the only such group here, pro­vides sup­port to those with the con­di­tion.

Co-founder and pres­i­dent Jas-

ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

Ms Jas­mine Liew (in red dress), co-founder and pres­i­dent of Sco­l­io­sis Sup­port Sin­ga­pore, with (from left) Ms Nur Afi­fah Mo­hamed Ali, Ms Cheryl Lim and Mea­gan Ho. All four suf­fer from sco­l­io­sis – a side­ways cur­va­ture of the spine.

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