The Loudoun Woman Who Invented Her Own Spinal Surgery

“I was a ballerina, like many young girls who want to be ballerinas.”

Catherine Ross was a good ballerina. In high school, she had won accolades and accelerated beyond her classmates. She was ready to take go en pointe, and so she had to get a physical.

“That’s really when I had learned that I had scoliosis,” Ross said. “I did learn earlier, like in the third grade when I screened for it, but I went to see a doctor and he said, ‘oh, you’re fine,’ and didn’t give me proper instructions.”

But scoliosis is a serious problem, which can cause nerve problems, difficulty breathing, problems with internal organs, and more, and can get suddenly worse.

“They were like, ‘oh, you have scoliosis,’ I was like, ‘oh, I know.’” Ross said. “And they were like, ‘no, you don’t. This is serious business that needs surgery.’”

That began a series of surgeries, including an emergency surgery when instrumentation came dislodged from her spine.

“After each surgery, the light got dimmer and dimmer on my ballet career,” Ross said. “It was tough, as a teen, to have this dream and to be pursuing it, and getting rewarded in dance and getting accolades, and then this sort of comes out of nowhere.”

She was told she would never be a dancer for the best companies, but she could probably still get work in local companies.

“That’s just didn’t jive with the vision I had for my life,” she said.

X-ray images from Catherine Ross's surgery. (Renss Greene/Loudoun Now)
X-ray images from Catherine Ross’s surgery. (Renss Greene/Loudoun Now)

Ross, who also had a talent for math and science, went into engineering and got involved in research projects around scoliosis. When she came out of school she started to look for work in the field, but although it was deeply personal to her, she had mixed reactions in interviews when she would tell her own story. She decided she would tell it one last time when she got an opportunity to interview at K2M.

“I had gotten recommendations that perhaps I should not tell my story, because I would be viewed as a liability to the company,” Ross said. “I told myself, I’m going to tell my story one more time, and if I don’t get hired, then that’s it.”

But the reaction at K2M was much different than what she was used to.

“They just had a completely different outlook on it, and it was exactly the attitude of people I want to work with,” Ross said. “It’s not just business and selling things, it’s a people business, and you’re impacting people’s lives.”

While there, she met the doctor who would become her surgeon, and worked with him to develop the technology that he would attach to her own spine. When she was in college, she suffered through difficulty breathing and radiating pain. She said sometimes her feet would suddenly feel like they were on fire. Now she’s had her last surgery and a new lease on life.

“I would walk up the steps at the old K2M building and I’d be completely out of breath,” Ross said. “I used to hide in a little supply closet until I caught my breath, because I was so self-conscious.” Now, she can “do all the normal things that a normal 20-year-old can do,” including a little salsa and ballroom dance.

“The breathing is probably the biggest thing,” she said. “You can actually take a full breather. With a deformed spine, your lungs sort of feel trapped, so just the simplicity of being able to take a full breath is something that I do every day that I couldn’t do before.”

See related article: “K2M Reveals New Headquarters.”

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