Back in the Game

When Gabby Rodriguez found out she had scoliosis, she turned to experts from Och Spine at NewYork-Presbyterian to correct her curved spine, allowing her to fulfill her dream of playing Division I softball.

From the day she raised her hand to be the catcher on her T-ball team at 5 years old, Gabby Rodriguez has relished her role behind the plate. Hailing from a family of baseball players, G-Rod, as she is called, has always been a leader on the field — a take-charge player who loves the constant physical and mental demands of the game.

When at age 12 she didn’t make it on her local travel softball team in suburban Buffalo, New York, Gabby refused to quit. Instead, she played her way onto a team located 45 minutes away and started working with a former Division I baseball player as a private coach. She dedicated herself to becoming such a complete catcher and power hitter that no team would pass on her again.

But the summer after her freshman year in high school, Gabby began experiencing increasing pain in her back — pain that would get so bad that she could barely move. An X-ray revealed a dramatic 69-degree curve in her spine. Gabby was told that she would need reconstructive surgery, which wouldn’t only crush her dream of playing Division I college softball, it would end her catching career altogether.

“I could barely look my daughter in the eyes,” says her mother, Christina, of that wrenching consultation. “She left there feeling defeated and terrified.”

Hopeful News

Determined to get a second opinion, Christina, a nurse practitioner, reached out to a neurosurgery colleague who recommended she contact Dr. Lawrence Lenke, co-director of Och Spine at NewYork-Presbyterian, surgeon-in-chief at the Och Spine Hospital. Dr. Lenke, who is also chief of spinal deformity surgery in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, is widely renowned for his success in complex spinal deformity surgery and saw a positive trajectory for Gabby, whom he diagnosed with adolescent idiopathic scoliosis. He had helped other high-level athletes — including golfers, tennis players, swimmers, and ice skaters — get back to competition and he was confident he could help her too. He but put no restrictions on her and told her that she’d be in charge of her own recovery. That resonated with her. “He said, ‘If you feel like one day you want to swing the bat, swing the bat. If it starts to hurt then stop, but increase your limits every day,’” Gabby recalls. “I could feel that I was meant to go there. I trusted Dr. Lenke to do the surgery.”

Gabby with Dr. Lenke

To her relief, Dr. Lenke also told her that the surgery could wait until after her travel team, the Travel Magic, competed in that year’s National Softball Association World Series. On August 3, 2018, Dr. Lenke performed a posterior spinal fusion by inserting multiple screws and parallel rods into the vertebrae of Gabby’s spine and then adding bone grafts to fuse the bone into place. Gabby’s spine was corrected, but she had to recover and regain her strength after the extensive surgery. With the help of physical therapy and driven by her own goals, she progressed quickly. Three and a half months after surgery, she was swinging a bat and getting ready for her sophomore season on the varsity team for the Lake Shore High Eagles. Two other bonuses from surgery: Gabby gained three inches in height (she is now 5′2 ¾″) and has gotten to share her experience with other young people facing spinal surgery, something she loves doing.

Gabby capped her Lake Shore career in 2021 by earning MVP and all-star honors for leading the Eagles to a 19-0 record and a section championship. Moreover, she realized her dream of playing for a Division I school when she accepted an offer to play at Niagara University in Lewiston, New York. “We all knew how important softball was to Gabby,” says Dr. Lenke. “I am so proud of how she has done postoperatively. She exemplifies how a motivated and talented teenager can take a setback in her health but come out of it on the other side even stronger.”

The Future is Bright

The surgery gave Gabby far more than her athletic life back; it gave her a new dream. She now wants to become a physical therapist like the one who helped her recover from surgery. After a year studying biology and playing softball at Niagara, where she experienced the demands of Division I student-athlete life but didn’t see much action, Gabby is considering transferring to a school with academic offerings better suited to her career goals. “I wanted to play softball at the DI level for a year and be able to say I did it,” she says. “And now I want to start putting my future first.”

Gabby and the team at Och Spine remain in touch. She sent Dr. Lenke a note on Doctors’ Day and was told the staff there continues to root for her. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for this surgery,” she says. “This operation flipped my life around, and that couldn’t have happened without Dr. Lenke.”

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