Whether Avery Schroeder is jostling for position in the post, going up for a rebound or driving for a layup, there is something she has that sets her apart.
Schroeder, a 6-foot-5 junior forward for Rock Bridge, is bolstered by two titanium rods, each about a foot long, that run from her shoulder blades to lower back. The rods correct the effects of scoliosis, a horizontal curvature of the spine.
By now, the hardware is as much a part of her as her arms and her legs. Bone has grown around the rods — and the 20 screws holding them in place — in the 10 months since they were installed, allowing Schroeder’s basketball career to flourish.
Doctors told Stacy Schroeder, Avery’s mom, that the procedure is fairly common. Scoliosis is prevalent in adolescent girls, and many have fusion surgery to correct it.
But it was never a given that Avery — who played basketball, volleyball and softball as a child — would return to competitive sports. The benchmark for practicing contact sports again is one year after surgery.
“At the point of surgery, we weren’t really sure if I was going to be able to participate in any high school sports, let alone when,” Avery said.
Scoliosis can affect people in different ways. It can cause the spine to bend back and forth like an “S,” but Avery’s was a “C” curve, bending to the right between her shoulder blades and lower back. It also twisted, another complication of scoliosis.
Every six months, the Schroeders would travel to Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City for checkups. After the curvature surpassed 50 degrees, surgery became inevitable. Once it reaches that point, it’s unlikely the curve will stop worsening on its own.
There wasn’t a rush to complete the surgery, but Avery decided to have it done sooner rather than later. Younger, healthier bodies react best to surgery, and Avery had an eye on her future.
That didn’t make it an easy choice.
“It’s a scary thing,” Schroeder said. “Going into future athletics and how long it was going to put me out for was a big factor. I wanted to be able to participate in high school and, hopefully, college sports as much as I could, so I had to think about that. But I also had to think about the type of recovery from a major surgery like that and how much time it’s going to take because of the scale that it’s on.”
Doctors at Children’s Mercy performed the surgery on April 5. It was Avery’s first surgical procedure.
All surgeries require recovery, but spinal fusion to correct scoliosis is especially debilitating. Surgeons cut through back muscles to access the spine and install the rods and screws. Afterward, the muscles must reattach.
Avery spent a week in the hospital before going home, where she missed another month of school building the strength to sit up, stand and walk around.
“She found out very fast when you’re recovering from something like that,” Stacy said, “your back affects your whole body.”
The summer was filled with intense physical therapy at PEAK Sport and Spine in Columbia. Much of the therapy was devoted to building the back strength Schroeder lost in surgery. A healthy portion also focused on flexibility to reduce pain and soreness. Schroeder said she “worked her butt off.”
“It was extremely tough on her, but you wouldn’t know it from being around her,” Stacy said.
In August, doctors at Children’s Mercy gave Avery approval to play volleyball because of the sport’s lack of physical contact. She attended the first practice of the season and played throughout the year.
Training for basketball, Avery’s favorite sport, was another matter. Contact is heavy, especially in the post. With trainers from Columbia collaborating with doctors in Kansas City, Schroeder underwent a six-week strengthening program to prep for the basketball season.
She got approval to play basketball games before Christmas, four months before the benchmark to even start practicing contact sports.
“It’s just been amazing, really, what she’s done,” Coach Jill Nagel said. “First of all, we didn’t even know if she’d be able to play. We thought, at best, maybe after Jan. 1 she could start practicing.
“By mid-December, she’s already getting minutes in games.”
Schroeder averages four points, three rebounds and one block.
The surgery still has effects. Schroeder goes through a warm-up process that includes stretching and heat. When her muscles cool, they quickly get stiff. She wears long sleeves, and when she subs out, she quickly throws on sweatshirts and jackets to trap the heat.
Stacy said from the stands, watching her daughter play is scary. While doctors have reassured her that Schroeder’s spine is solid bone and fully healed, her motherly instinct kicks in when Avery jostles under the rim or hits the floor.
But if there’s anything she feels more powerful than fear, it’s pride.
“To see her happy, playing the sport that she loves, when she wasn’t sure that she was going to,” Stacy said, “that’s a wonderful thing.”