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From Grueling to Graceful

Julia Hornok Journey to Healing - Arkansas Childrens Hospital Texarkana Teen Recovers from Spinal Fusion with Poise

Vicki Hornok hadn't planned to order a recital costume for her 14-year-old daughter, Julia, just after the young ballerina's spinal fusion surgery at Arkansas Children's Hospital last December.

It's a good thing she did. Within six weeks of the major procedure to correct adolescent idiopathic scoliosis, Julia was back in the studio dancing three hours, two nights a week.

"I picked her up after her first practice since the surgery, and the director of Judith McCarty School of Dance said, 'She did 90 percent of everything we rehearsed today,'" Vicki recalls. "She had an incredible drive and is so happy she had the spinal fusion now."

Not only did Julia dance that spring, just a week after her nearly four-hour surgery, she also tried out for a production of "Seussical, Jr." at Silvermoon Children's Theatre. She landed the role of Gertrude McFuzz.

"We'd heard so many things about spinal fusions and how difficult recovery can be," Vicki says. "I wasn't even sure she could navigate the stairs, but she went up there, took center stage and won the part by singing, 'Alone in the Universe.' No one else had any clue she'd had spine surgery."

This fall, Julia will enter Veritas Academy as a freshman, and plans to dance, act and sing throughout high school.

Dr. Dale Blasier, an orthopedic surgeon at Arkansas Children's Hospital and a professor of Pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, performed Julia's spinal fusion about a year after first meeting her family. Initially, they agreed to not use a brace and just see how Julia's spine responded.

By April of 2013, Dr. Blasier told Julia she would need surgical intervention to correct the curve. He recommended the spinal fusion, which would use two rods to straighten her back.

Julia Hornok Journey to Healing - Arkansas Childrens HospitalHe says teens typically do well after spinal fusion surgeries and most return to activities with some limitations after three weeks. Spine surgery at Arkansas Children's Hospital has been refined to the point that recovery from this operation is much easier and faster than it was in the past. Surgeons at ACH performed nearly 60 of these procedures in 2013.

"It's not like adult back surgery," Dr. Blasier said. "Once the curve is corrected, it won't progress further and will keep the spine from curving again. But certainly, Julia's determination and grace aided her recovery."

Dr. Blasier agreed to wait until Julia finished in last year's Nutcracker with Texarkana Community Ballet. She performed Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and was in Little Rock for the surgery three days later.

"Even as we were going in for pre-op, we weren't sure how the procedure would affect her range of motion," Vicki said. "We were trusting the Lord entirely."

Keeping Julia in dance was important to her entire family because of how much she loves performing. When Julia's scoliosis was first identified in 2012, her parents received the option of several referrals.

"We chose Arkansas Children's Hospital," Vicki says. "We sought some second opinions, and we also tried to find other dancers who had experienced this kind of surgery."

Julia's pointe and tap shoes have been given quite the workout since she started dancing at age 5. She refused to let scoliosis make her hang them up.

Julia Hornok Journey to Healing - Arkansas Childrens Hospital

"I went to an intensive dance camp the summer before, hoping to find someone that we could talk to that had had this same surgery and had been able to continue dancing," Julia said. "I wasn't sure how it would change my ability to do an arabesque or other positions, but I also didn't want to have back problems when I got older."

Ultimately, the Hornoks were inspired after a visit with a surgeon in Texas who had performed the same surgery for LPGA golfer Stacy Lewis.

"We learned that the rods helped her swing better, straighter," Vicki said. "That gave us hope."

The Hornoks headed back to Little Rock after their research, confident that surgery proposed by Dr. Blasier would not end her dancing career. But they were still unsure what the outcome would be.

The morning of the procedure, Dr. Blasier greeted her family.

"I really loved that he even rolled her into surgery himself," Vicki says. "And then we were just amazed with the result. I never could have fathomed that day that within 12 weeks she'd hold one of the lead roles in a musical."

This story, written by staff at Arkansas Children's Hospital, originally appeared in Texarkana Parent magazine.

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