Paying it forward
DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS "I was scared at first."
Ashley D'Amico sensed something was wrong.
"It was painful to slouch over or to stretch my back."
At the time, she was only in grade school.
Finally, in sixth grade, she discovered the reason for her discomfort when a nurse in the Lehighton Area School District diagnosed Ashley with curvature of the spine.
Two years later, Ashley, the daughter of Mike D'Amico and Paula Warner, Lehighton, traveled to Philadelphia where she underwent a serious surgical procedure - posterior spine fusion for scoliosis.
A spine typically might have a small amount of natural curvature, say doctors, but the scoliosis condition is an abnormal curvature. Instead of running from top to bottom in a relatively straight line, a spine impacted by scoliosis can be S-shaped or C-shaped.
If the degree of curvature increases, scoliosis can bring about pain and weakness. In a worst-case scenario, it can result in heart, lung and breathing problems if those organs become cramped.
That was the concern for Ashley's situation, and doctors were being realistic. Ashley's father remembers the sobering words by medical professionals and fears associated with an uncertain future.
"It would increase by one percent each year," says Mike. "It would've pinched her lungs."
Most cases of scoliosis begin when a child is perhaps 8 or 10, and nobody is sure what causes it.
For the D'Amico family, the priority turned to getting help for Ashley as soon as possible. They carefully examined their options.
"We researched doctors," says Mike. The D'Amicos eventually decided on a physician who practiced medicine at the Shriners Hospital for Children, Philadelphia.
In January, 2011, Ashley underwent surgery. Doctors inserted two steel rods and 13 screws into her spine.
"I was scared at first," she says. She was confined to the hospital for more than a week and spent three days in ICU.
Ashley recalls awakening after surgery and realizing that things were different.
"I had to learn how to roll over on my side."
She recalls the long, six-month recovery process and adjusting to daily limitations. Fortunately, home tutors were available to help her to keep up with schoolwork.
Little by little, life returned to normal.
Now 16, Ashley is in 11th grade at Lehighton Area High School. She participates in most activities and is allowed to take part in gym class. But she understands the need to be careful with physical activity and she adheres to specific limits.
"I'm not allowed to go on the trampoline or to do gymnastics."
She still feels effects of major surgery but has been told that such adjustments are normal.
"Sometimes I feel like my shoulder blade is hitting the rod," she reveals. It's a feeling hard to put into words. But Ashley understands that things are different and healing takes time.
One of the biggest surprises for the family was learning that Shriners Hospital had paid for the surgical procedure.
It's part of what is known as the Shriners Hospitals for Children, a health system of 22 facilities dedicated to providing pediatric medical care, world-class research and educational programs, supported by Shriners International.
Turns out, the 59-bed pediatric orthopedic hospital provides care at no cost to children.
In fact, youngsters in the system are completely covered for hospital service until age 18. And that means 100% covered.
The news stunned the D'Amicos, who figured they'd be responsible to pay, at the minimum, a hefty coinsurance. Before the surgery, the family was given a heads-up by their own insurer that medical bills would find their way to their D'Amico doorstep.
"We had given it to our insurance carrier and they said it's not all covered," says Mike, owner of Normal Square Inn.
So if the successful surgery was the primary blessing, a secondary blessing was that Shriners Hospital picked up the tab for a hefty sum. According to the website ThirdAge.com, the average scoliosis surgery costs $120,000.
Mike is so grateful for the kindness and generosity of Shriners Hospital that he joined with friends Dwight Frey, known as year-round Santa Claus, and Marv Miller, both of Lehighton, to organize the annual Shriners Normal Square Golf Invitational at Mahoning Valley Country Club. The event attracts 36 to 40 golfers who spend a day on the links and then enjoy dinner at Normal Square Inn, courtesy of Mike.
In 2011, the event raised $1,250; in 2012, $1,300 and this year, $2,000. The funds are donated to Shriners Hospital.
In addition, Mike established his restaurant as a collection site for aluminum pull tabs, a Shriners program. The Shriners collect the tabs, which are then melted and recycled. Proceeds benefit other families whose children seek treatment at Shriners Hospital.
Mike keeps a five-gallon jug on hand at the eatery. Diners and visitors are encouraged to drop off their pull tabs at their convenience.
Proceeds of the pull tab collection and success of the golf tournament allow the D'Amicos to pay it forward.
A spokesman for Shriners Hospital says the facility is appreciative for the support because they deal not only with major health issues among children, but many everyday-type injuries that happen with active youngsters.
"We treat all kinds of situations," says Sarah Cohn, public relations agent. "It might be, for example, a broken arm or broken bones from sports."
And more help is coming for local children.
A new group, the Carbon County Shrine Club, was formed in September to serve the needs of children in the area. Interim president is Michael A. Mickey.
As for Ashley, she believes the surgery was life-changing and imperative for her good health.
"I would've been a hunchback and it would've been pretty serious."
Even more, the experience affected her in a profound way.
"I don't take life for granted," she says.
Ashley now harbors a passion to channel her experience into helping others, perhaps in the field of pediatrics.
"I want to become a nurse. I want to have a long-term relationship with the child, maybe work in rehabilitation."
The D'Amicos are grateful to so many: the Shriners, the community, local golfers, tournament helpers, folks who continue to collect pull tabs, and all who've lent a hand or expressed support.
And now it's time to not only be thankful, but to help others, they say.
Once you've received a blessing in your life, you want to pay it foward.