Scars and Curves: A Scoliosis Patient Finds Healing in Art
Jun 21, 2021 Jasmine Aimaq
Sandra Gray doesn't remember her first scoliosis surgery. That's because she was just one and a half years old.
This signaled the start of a 25-year journey against an unusually aggressive case of a common childhood affliction.
"By age 13, I'd had eight or nine surgeries and suffered many complications, from infections to nerve damage, that left lasting effects," Sandra says. "It was traumatic."
She felt a twinge of that trauma the day she attended the Back to Healing exhibit at Cedars-Sinai. But she felt something else, too.
"I had a profound sense of connection with every person featured in that exhibit," she says of the scoliosis patients featured in 10 photographs by New York-based artist Marcus John. "I hadn't expected to get so emotional. The art really brought something to the surface. It was cathartic."
"The art really brought something to the surface. It was cathartic."
The power of art
In that moment, Sandra personally experienced the power of art and its relationship to healing. The connection has long been known by many great doctors, including Dr. Lindsey Ross, a family friend and Cedars-Sinai neurosurgeon who was instrumental in bringing the exhibit to the medical center.
"Knowing what I've been through, Lindsey reached out and encouraged me to attend the exhibit once the pandemic started to ease," Sandra explains. "She came with me. She knew how inspiring and healing the hospital's art collection could be for patients."
The display was timed to coincide with Black History Month, showcasing a Black artist and expressing the diversity of those afflicted with scoliosis.
"The exhibit was a reminder that I am far from alone. This condition can affect anyone, anywhere in the world," she says, adding that she became conscious of how lucky she was to have access to excellent medical care.
"Many people in this country and elsewhere cannot get the type of help I got," she says. "Viewing that exhibit, I really knew how blessed I was."
The power of words
This wasn't the first time Cedars-Sinai made a difference in Sandra's life. Although she had her operations at a children's hospital many years ago, she spent years being warned to be extra cautious well into adulthood.
"My life was a list of don'ts," she says. "Doctors always said, 'Don't run, don't twist or bend, don't jump.'"
It wasn't until two years ago that Sandra, now 38, was declared fully recovered.
"Dr. Alexander Tuchman, a neurosurgeon at Cedars-Sinai, was the first person to tell me what I could do instead of what I couldn't do," she says. "He cared about my quality of life and understood the power of being told 'You can do it.'"
Having a specialist confirm that she was well and that she could do many of the things she'd been afraid of was life-changing."On the way home, I cried tears of joy," she recalls.
The power of excellence
A Chicago native, Sandra traveled to Los Angeles at age 13 for her last and longest surgery. The aftermath was so tough that she ended up staying in the city for a year, living with her grandparents, who not only took care of her but eventually led her to Cedars-Sinai. Her grandmother was director of the Operating Room in Nursing at the medical center.
"I kept hearing great things about this hospital from my grandmother, who had so much respect for everyone here. I've been a Cedars-Sinai patient for years now, and I've seen for myself how right she was."
Given her history, Sandra had seen numerous doctors at different hospitals over the years, and she says there's a difference at Cedars-Sinai.
"I've been to other reputable medical institutions, but the doctors here truly care," she explains. "They're excellent investigators, taking their time to figure out what's going on, really listening and never making me feel like just another patient. On top of that, they are the best at what they do. I trust them with every aspect of my health. "
The power within
Sandra's odyssey has filled her with a deep sense of compassion, which informs her job in the Los Angeles Superior Court system, where she works with judges on programs that support underprivileged people, including youths who have committed first-time offenses.
She lives with reminders of her path to healing. She has several scars from her surgeries, including a large one down her spine and across her shoulder. As a teenager, she remembers trying to hide them.
When she thinks of the photos in the exhibit, and when she sees the lingering signs of her own affliction, she knows that she can overcome just about anything.
"I have had to learn to walk three times in my life. I still encounter challenges, and that's OK," she says. "I can handle them."
"Today, I am proud of my scars," she says. "I went through something very difficult, and I recovered. The scars are evidence of my resilience."