Salma Suleiman walked on tiptoe—just one—to accommodate the 170-degree curve in her spine. Her right hip and right shoulder blade nearly met where the tips of the C-curve of her backbone ended. The deformity was shocking. And if left untreated, it would eventually kill her.
Salma’s lungs and heart had no room to function, which meant that the 12-year-old was winded after only a few steps. Worse, her organs could withstand the constant pressure for only so long.
Resources were scarce in Salma’s hometown of Nairobi, Kenya, and surgeons at the National Spine Injury Hospital there were unable to tackle her complicated case. A mission trip to Kenya brought NuVasive Spine Foundation doctors to Salma, and thus began the search for a U.S. physician who could tackle her surgery.
It was OrthoIndy Orthopedic Surgeon Dr. David Schwartz and Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital at St.Vincent that stepped up and provided Salma’s medical services free of charge.
After that thrilling development but before she could travel to the United States, Salma lost her mother to complications from childbirth. Two months later, distraught and in physical pain, Salma flew to Indianapolis with her guardian and a Kenyan physician.
Her situation seemed to go from bad to worse when Dr. Schwartz, during his initial consultation, explained that the surgery could leave Salma paralyzed. He estimated a 20-30 percent chance of paralysis. Salma’s tears flowed, but she moved forward, heading into the 12-hour surgery on the morning of January 4, 2012.
Dr. Joseph Riina, an Orthopedic Spine Surgeon at OrthoIndy, assisted Dr. Schwartz with a posterior spinal fusion with instrumentation—not the original plan but one necessitated by the extremity of Salma’s condition.
“Initially, we were going to try and do an osteotomy, where we cut through, remove some bone, and then realign the spine,” said Dr. Schwartz. “But once we saw her spine, we realized that her spinal cord was in such bad condition that she could become paralyzed if we proceeded with the procedure.”
The surgery reduced the curvature of Salma’s spine from 170 degrees to 70 degrees. She grew an instant ten inches overnight from the procedure and was able to walk the length of the hospital hallways just a week later.
After rehabilitation at NuVasive’s San Diego headquarters, Salma headed back home to Kenya. But first she made a call to Dr. Schwartz from the airport, letting him know that she was in no pain and full of optimism. The young girl has left an indelible mark on the surgeon who came to her aid.
“I can’t tell you how excited and happy I am for Salma,” Dr. Schwartz said. “She has touched my life in ways I can’t even tell you. My hope is that I can give her a good life in the future. I think we’ve saved her—we’ve really saved her.”
Salma seems to agree: “I was losing my hope,” she said, “and Dr. Schwartz brought my hope back.”
To learn more about Salma’s story and watch the video, visit www.stvincent.org/salma.