Jay Paul photo
Kaylee Ferguson, a sophomore at Lee-Davis High School, first noticed symptoms of scoliosis at age 4. Since then, her spine has been curving to the side. By this year, it had twisted into an S-shape. To correct the curvature, Dr. H. Robert Tuten suggested she try Kryptonite Bone Cement, a process approved by the FDA just days before her surgery
"At first, I was not sure," says Miriam Ferguson, Kaylee's mom as well as a critical-care nurse at Memorial Regional Medical Center. "[But] he said he could use half the number of instrumental [screws] and half the number of rods. ... I said to him, ‘Would you do this if it were your own child?' He said, ‘Absolutely.' " An avid soccer player, Kaylee was willing to try the new procedure because Tuten said it would mean a shorter recovery time. Rather than using two rods and 24 to 26 screws to hold the vertebrae in place, the puttylike Kryptonite requires just one rod and 12 to 13 screws. Kaylee was the first patient in the country to receive the treatment for scoliosis, Tuten says.
"You caulk that bone, and as it hardens, it will give them an instant fusion," says Tuten, a partner at Tuckahoe Orthopaedic Associates. Once done, he adds, the bone is corrected for life.
Within three weeks of Kaylee's May 18 surgery, she was functioning normally. "I was walking by the second day after surgery," says Kaylee, 15 (shown above with her mother). "And I was off painkillers [by] the third week." Miriam laughs, explaining that her daughter has no idea what improvements the Kryptonite substance offers scoliosis patients. Miriam, 50, also has scoliosis — but her surgery at age 12 was altogether different.
"I was in a cast from my neck down to below my waist for six months, in bed for four [of those months] and then got that changed to a different type of cast without a chin piece for three more months," she says, adding that she had to live at a hospital 90 miles away from her family for the four bedridden months.
Miriam's scoliosis surgery, in 1972, involved pulling her spine apart and into the correct shape. A Harrington rod was positioned along the inside of the curve and held in place by two hooks. Bone was taken from her hip crests, leaving 9-inch scars, and placed between the hooks to hold them together. "I lost eight units of blood," she says.
Tuten says Kryptonite has been used in Canada, Europe and the Caribbean for about five years. When using it to treat scoliosis, he says, an incision is still made, but each vertebrae is rotated individually, followed by the insertion of just one bar and about 13 screws to hold it in place. The Kryptonite is then pressed around the vertebrae. There is far less pain during recovery than in traditional scoliosis surgeries, he says, adding that there are many uses for Kryptonite. "It's like duct tape. You can use it for a lot of things that involve bone," Tuten says, such as heart surgery, neurosurgery and plastic surgery. "It's a game changer."
Miriam says that St. Mary's Hospital has used Kryptonite several times to heal sternal wounds after open-heart surgery. "It's a very cutting-edge process," she says.
Tuten holds up a piece of hardened Kryptonite, explaining that it's a mixture of calcium mixed with two fatty acids, one of which is made from soy. "It makes a glue the bone can grow into," he says, adding that it hardens to become a porous substance similar to bone.
Another local physician who performs spinal surgery is taking a wait-and-see approach to using Kryptonite. "I tend to be more conservative," before adopting such a new technique, says Dr. E. Claiborne Irby Jr. of West End Orthopaedic Clinic. Yet, he adds, "The huge potential in orthopedics is to come up with something that will give you instant stability but allows bone to grow into it." If this is it, he says, "That would be huge."
Kaylee says the hardest part of her surgery was reducing her activity levels. But knowing about her mom's situation keeps her grateful. She also says she does not have any of the old aches and pain she had experienced from scoliosis.
"As a consequence of my surgery — this is probably not a bad thing — I cannot slouch to save my life," Kaylee says, laughing. In classroom situations where others relax or put their head on their desks, she's seated straight up. "I get compliments from my teachers for my good posture."