Scoliosis surgery restores quality of life for pediatric patient
Cayman Westerkamp’s health journey began as soon as he was welcomed into the world.
Diagnosed with an array of medical issues, including hydrocephalus and spina bifida involving the cervical and thoracic spine, he lived in a medical home in Hunan, China for the first seven years of his life. However, in 2017, Cayman found his forever family across the world in Texas with the Westerkamps.
“We originally hosted Cayman for a few weeks in 2016, and immediately fell in love with him,” said Cayman’s mother, Courtney Westerkamp. “After he left to return to China, we knew we wanted to adopt him. He was part of our family.”
For the most part, Cayman’s health remained stable for years. It wasn’t until July 2021 that a few worrisome symptoms arose.
“Cayman began having trouble breathing and was experiencing pain in his spine,” Courtney said.
Knowing his history with spina bifida and associated risk of developing scoliosis, his parents immediately booked him an appointment with an expert they already knew, loved, and trusted — Surya N. Mundluru, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston and a pediatric orthopedic surgeon with UT Physicians.
Having previously cared for Cayman’s brother, Mundluru and the Westerkamp family were bonded.
“Dr. Mundluru is so patient-focused and really takes the time to do all the research and give you the best recommendation for a treatment plan,” Courtney said. “That’s what makes me trust him. I have so much faith and confidence in him.”
Cayman’s spina bifida is considered rare, involving both his lower lumbar spine and his upper cervical spinal area. As a result of his underlying spina bifida, he developed a progressive scoliosis deformity causing his lungs to have less space to function. Over time, the extreme level of abnormality and deformity caused reduced daily function and breathing complications.
“Scoliosis surgery is not just cosmetic. If not repaired, the condition can affect the chest wall and a patient’s ability to breathe,” Mundluru said.
After performing the necessary scans and tests before surgery, a major complication was discovered — a tethered spinal cord. In most individuals, the spinal cord floats freely inside the spinal canal. Cayman’s was attached, which meant two surgeries would be necessary with several UT Physicians experts.
For the first procedure, two pediatric neurosurgeons with UT Physicians joined Cayman’s health care team. Brandon A. Miller, MD, PhD, assistant professor in the Division of Pediatric Neurosurgery at McGovern Medical School, and Manish N. Shah, MD, an associate professor also in the division at the medical school, were able to release the problematic spinal cord during a six-hour surgery.
Following a six-week healing period, it was time for the final spinal fusion procedure with Mundluru and Shah-Nawaz Dodwad, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at McGovern Medical School and orthopedic spine surgeon with UT Physicians.
“We used a spinal navigation system, which is state of the art, to perform Cayman’s fusion surgery to repair his spine. It took approximately 12 hours, and he did amazing,” Mundluru said.
While recovering from back-to-back extensive surgeries, Cayman participated in physical therapy for weeks.
“He’s so tenacious and was determined to get better,” Courtney said. “I remember him asking how many laps he would need to walk each day before he could be released.”
Eventually, his hard work paid off and things that were impossible before became a reality — like the simple act of riding a bike.
“It’s one of those things he could never do before because he didn’t have the balance, but now he loves it,” Courtney said. “He wants to be able to do so much, so we’ll just see how things go. That’s why these procedures were so important; it gave him his quality of life back.”
Mundluru plans on following Cayman’s case on a yearly basis for checkups, although he does believe his long-term prognosis is positive, in part because of his support system at home.
“The Westerkamps are the most wonderful people and are so positive,” Mundluru said. “I’m proud that the comprehensive care we were able to provide at UT Physicians made such a positive impact on their lives.”
Courtney and her husband Jason remain forever grateful for the care Cayman received, which they believe exceeded the usual expectations of a doctor/patient relationship.
“When we needed to speak with Dr. Mundluru, he was always there. Everything that he does for his patients and their families is above and beyond what you would expect,” she said.
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