Rachel Mulvaney is the Vice President of Curvy Girls, an international support group for girls with scoliosis. You might remember that we interviewed the group's founder, Leah Stoltz, on the Scoliosis SOS blog last year - this time around, we have a Q&A with Rachel, whose scoliosis story is rather different from Leah's but no less inspirational.
So, Rachel - when did you first learn that you had scoliosis?
I was nine years old when my school nurse detected my curves during a scoliosis screening examination. With a 35-degree curve, bracing was immediately recommended - I wore a brace 16 hours a day for nearly 3 years. However, several months after I'd been discharged from bracing, my back pain worsened and we learned that my curve had progressed to 42 degrees.
It was during this time that my mother was doing research for the book that we were writing, Straight Talk with the Curvy Girls. We learned about a scoliosis-specific exercise called the Schroth method, and in 2010, I travelled to a scoliosis clinic in Wisconsin for an intensive two-week programme.
And how well did the treatment work?
I believe it worked very well for me. The back brace did stabilise my curves, but my scoliosis continued to progress as I was never educated on how to hold my body in an upright position without depending on my brace. It was the Schroth method that improved my scoliosis and eliminated my chronic back pain. Those scoliosis-specific exercises taught me how to strengthen my weakened muscles, maintain correction, and most importantly, live a pain-free life.
After eight months of consistently doing the exercises, my 42-degree curve reduced to 30 degrees. This was a surprise to my orthopaedic surgeon, as I was already skeletally matured. And my success did not end there - by the summer of 2013, my curved had reduced to 22 degrees.
How did you get involved with Curvy Girls?
I became involved with Curvy Girls before we even had a formal name! Twelve years ago, my physical therapist introduced me to Leah Stoltz, who told me that she wanted to start a scoliosis support group for people our age. When she asked if I would be interested in attending a meeting, I said yes without any hesitation. Several weeks later, I went to the first meeting at her home on 6th August 2006.
Tell us about the role you play in Curvy Girls today.
Today, I am proud to say that I am the Vice President of Curvy Girls. Since 2012, I have co-led and co-created our International Biennial Curvy Girls Scoliosis Conventions with Leah. I also serve as a mentor for our Curvy Girl Leaders in the New York and New England regions.
I also make myself available to educate and advocate for the Schroth method. Over the years, I have invited medical professionals (as well as newly-diagnosed families) into my home to demonstrate how effective these exercises can be for a scoliotic spine.
And what do you do in your life outside of Curvy Girls?
Outside of Curvy Girls, I work as a Care Coordinator II at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, where I facilitate and manage an oncologists' clinic and help run our chemotherapy unit. I am also preparing to go back to college to receive my master's in Public Health. I have a strong interest in research, epidemiology and preventative care.
Has helping other people with their spinal curves helped you to come to terms with your own condition and experiences?
Absolutely - helping other girls was like a form of medicine to me. Educating families about the Schroth method helped me to discover a purpose and drive within me that I never knew existed.
Throughout my bracing years, I was told that my chronic back pain did not exist because scoliosis 'does not cause any pain'. I was one of many patients who were spoken to in this way. But after learning a programme that both validated and eliminated my pain, I was determined to spread the word. I wanted to make sure all Curvy Girl families had the opportunity to know that this treatment existed. How can we make the best decisions for our health if we don't know what all of our options are?
What advice would you give to a young girl who's just been diagnosed with scoliosis?
I would encourage that young girl to join a Curvy Girls chapter so she can see for herself that she is not alone. I would tell her about our conventions and how many girls she will meet from all around the world who are going through the same experiences she is.
And what advice would you give to the people close to them?
For family members, I would advise them to read Straight Talk with the Curvy Girls. This book includes health education, emotional support, and a dedicated section for parents.
For teachers, please show empathy and understanding of the needs she may have. Allow her to step away from her desk if she begins to feel back pain, as sitting for too long in a back brace can lead to discomfort. Excuse her from class if she needs to temporarily leave and take her brace off.
For friends, please be kind and accepting. This is a sensitive time for your friend. Offer to take her shopping to find clothes that will make her feel more confident when she wears her brace to school. You could even suggest helping her name her brace in order to make the brace a part of the friendship you all share.
Visit www.curvygirlsscoliosis.com to learn more about Curvy Girls, or follow @CurvyGirlsScoli on Twitter.
Here at the Scoliosis SOS Clinic, we treat scoliosis using a Schroth-based programme called ScolioGold therapy - learn all about it here.