May 23, 2008

Surgery straightens teen’s spine, spirit

Featured Image

Escarleth Betancourt-Gutierrez, right, and her mother, Rosario, at their home in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, before they travelled to Vanderbilt for the teen’s scoliosis surgery.

Surgery straightens teen’s spine, spirit

A friendship between a Vanderbilt doctor and a family he met while on a mission trip to Honduras has changed the life of a young teenager with a serious spinal condition.

Escarleth Betancourt-Gutierrez, 15, had a severe case of scoliosis, or curvature of the spine. Her spinal column was bent sharply, like a winding roadway.

Left untreated, the condition would have caused breathing and heart problems, as well as physical deformity. Medical personnel in the family's home of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, were unable to help her.

But in April, Escarleth and her mother, Rosario, arrived at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt for surgery to straighten the teen's spine. Greg Mencio, M.D., and his team operated on Escarleth for 10 hours in April, realigning her spine and adding steel rods to keep it from curving again.

The surgery was spurred by James Netterville, M.D., professor of Otolaryngology and Head and Neck Surgery, who met Escarleth and her family years ago while on a mission trip.

Netterville appealed to the hospital's International Leadership Committee, asking them to help.

The committee agreed. Mencio donated his services, and Children's Hospital covered all but $5,000 of Escarleth's other medical expenses. Harpeth Hills Church of Christ, where Netterville worships, donated money to cover the additional $5,000. Nearly $20,000 of implants needed for the surgery — including two rods and 20 screws — was donated by Surgical Resource Inc. and DePuy Spine.

It's not often that scoliosis progresses to this severity in the United States, Mencio said.

“It's a problem we're able to treat,” he said. “We do this all the time. The story is that the hospital provided the resources and the opportunity.”

On May 6, Escarleth and her mother met with Mencio for a final checkup before their return to Honduras. The teen bounced around the clinic, full of energy and giggles. Along with members of the church, she presented Mencio with framed pictures and news articles about the surgery, as well as other gifts and letters of thanks.

“Thank you, thank you so much,” a tearful Rosario Betancourt-Gutierrez said through an interpreter as she embraced Mencio.

In a heartfelt letter to Kevin Churchwell, M.D., chief executive officer of Children's Hospital, Netterville described his feelings about Escarleth's story.

“As I closely observed her throughout this remarkable surgical experience, I witnessed both inner and outer beauty unveiled, similar to watching a beautiful rose unfurl for spring,” he wrote. “Her outlook toward her future has blossomed, as she now sees a normal beautiful young lady in the mirror, instead of a crippled bent spine that needed to be hidden under heavy clothing from public view.”