Road to recovery: senior Zina Alshekhlee’s journey with scoliosis


Courtesy of Zina Alshekhlee

After surgery, senior Zina Alshekhlee comes home to flowers and presents arranged by friends and family. She left the hospital in a wheelchair and attended school for four months. “Before the surgery, I wasn’t too nervous or anything; I was like, ‘okay, I’m just going to show up and get this over with just kind of where I was at that day.’ I expected to be okay soon,” Alshekhlee said.

After receiving a diagnosis in the eighth grade, senior Zina Alshekhlee works to recover from major surgery to help better her scoliosis.

At first, it had little impact on Alshekhlee’s life; however, over the years, the pain increased.

“We hoped that [scoliosis] would correct itself over time, but it was getting worse. So when I talked to my doctor, she was telling me, ‘okay, by the time you’re 25 years old, which is not too long from now, it’s going to be very painful for you, and you’re just going to keep feeling that pain get worse and worse as you age,” Alshekhlee said.

In August 2021, Alshekhlee got surgery one week before the start of her senior year, forcing her to cancel pre-planned activities she had hoped to recover in time for.

“I had to cancel a bunch of events [such as] Link Crew events, I was planning on maybe managing [the cross country team] because you can’t run on a broken leg, but I wasn’t able to attend that,” Alshekhlee said. “Also little things that I wanted to do with my friends, like go to different places, I wasn’t able to do a lot of things. So I was pretty much just restricted to my house for a little while.”

Alshekhlee underwent a limb lengthening surgery on her left leg to fix the length discrepancy causing her scoliosis, but her recovery process wasn’t as smooth sailing as she had hoped.

“Based on what my doctor told me, I expected [recovery] to be only a few days. But, in my case, it’s been about five months since I’ve had the surgery. I spent two days in the hospital, and after that, I was in a wheelchair for four months at school, and then I switched to crutches, and I’m still using crutches,” Alshekhlee said.

Alshekhlee used a wheelchair for four months before switching to crutches, which she still uses. She was in physical therapy at the hospital and currently does the same exercises at home to rebuild the muscles in her femur. 

“There was one moment [during physical therapy] where I slipped, and that was very discouraging because I thought it was gonna be ready to go, I thought it’d be okay, but it was pretty painful afterward,” Alshekhlee said.

Alshekhlee’s pain was physical at first, but it gradually turned into a mental battle between pessimism and Alshekhlee’s determination to remain positive.

Zina Alshekhlee (middle) smiles for the camera with her family, her support system during the recovery process. Alshekhlee’s older sister (left) was initially diagnosed with scoliosis but bonded with Alshekhlee through her recovery after surgery. “I feel like nobody focuses on her scoliosis anymore because it’s not much of an issue. [But] she came home more, [and] I feel like we grew closer together,” Alshekhlee said. (Courtesy of Zina Alshekhlee)

“A lot of the time, I tried to ignore [the pain] and focus on other aspects of my life. There’s so much going on at this point in my life as a senior, [I] just needed to keep going. With college applications and my senior year, that was difficult for sure,” Alshekhlee said, “[It helped to] understand that this was my situation. I’m gonna have to get over it at some point. And there will come a day when I’ll be able to walk normally. I have to keep doing the work.”

Alshekhlee’s diagnosis came from an elementary school screening for scoliosis, which caught a slight curve in her sister’s back. This eventually led to Alshekhlee’s family taking notice of her growth patterns, at which point she learned about the 40-degree curve in her back.

“[My family was] very supportive [of my surgery]. When I got home, I was in a wheelchair, so they lifted and wheeled me around and helped me wherever I needed to. They helped me do those daily things that you just kind of need to do. [For example,] I wasn’t able to get up the stairs to my room. So my mom helped me get myself situated at home and sleep in her bed. I spent a lot of time with my friends the night before surgery [and] in the morning. [My sister also] supported me through this entire process. She help[ed] out wherever she could with whatever I needed,” Alshekhlee said.

Through it all, Alshekhlee developed a new perspective for life, and empathy for others who have to use medical equipment, such as wheelchairs, like she did.               

“​​[I] see [the world] from the perspective of a person who might be disabled. They’re not able to walk, have to use the elevator, and have to watch as everybody else is walking normally. I’m like, not able to. It opened my eyes to some of the experiences that many people have. I [had to] understand that everybody has their struggles, and like, we’re all facing our battles. And this one’s just kind of like one of the biggest ones in my life,” Alshekhlee said.