Competing Without Limits



When Alec Zimiga takes his place at the pitcher’s mound, nothing breaks his focus.

The 16-year-old Fargo athlete is known for his quick arm, whether he’s pitching, playing third base or at bat.

People who have recently seen him on the baseball field or the basketball court have a hard time believing that just a year ago, a curvature in Alec’s spine left him in so much pain that he had to pull himself out of a few games.

One year ago, a Sanford Orthopedics & Sports Medicine surgeon repaired his scoliosis and let him get back to the sports he loves.

“I was a little worried about what would happen, but I really don’t notice any difference,” says Alec. “I’ve got my swing back.”

When Alec was about 11 years old, his family first noticed a slight curve in his spine. Some chiropractic care seemed to help, but by the time he was 14, it had gotten quite noticeable, says his mother Anne. In fact, a sudden growth spurt led his spine to curve over 60 degrees.

“We knew we needed to do something, but he was still growing, so we opted to wait,” Anne says. “We wanted to make sure we did this when he was ready.”

An obvious problem

Her son’s scoliosis was very clear to anyone who saw him, but he rarely let it slow him down.

“If he took his shirt off in gym people would gasp because it was so bad,” Anne said. “His back looked like a letter ‘C.’”

Alec, a high school athlete who competed in basketball, baseball and football, was hesitant to opt for surgery, knowing it would take him out of commission for months, but he knew his back was getting worse. Eventually, he started having some pain in his internal organs caused by his increasingly curved back.

“When he pulled himself out of the game a few times, we knew that it was pretty serious,” she said.

His family heard about pediatric orthopedic surgeon Geoffrey Haft from Alec’s local doctors and other medical experts. After they consulted with Dr. Haft at Sanford Orthopedics & Sports Medicine, they were certain that he would be able to fix Alec’s worsening spine.

“He took his time with us and didn’t want us to leave until every question we had was answered,” Anne said.

Surgical repair

Dr. Haft explained that he could straighten the teen’s back with a procedure that would use rods and screws to correct the curve in the same way that braces help straighten crooked teeth. Over the course of four to six hours, the spine would be pulled into place and the backbone fused with a metal rod into that corrected position.

“He really made us feel comfortable,” her son, Alec added. “I know he would do a good job.”

In June 2011, after baseball season was done, Alec went in for surgery. At this point, the curvature of his spine had increased further to nearly a 90 degree curve. The procedure, which took close to seven hours to complete, was one of the more complicated that the surgeon has ever done. He was pleased that he was able to repair the curve without having to fuse large portions of the teen’s lower spine.

“The challenge with Alec’s scoliosis was that he had a very big curve, the correction of which usually requires fusion of much of the lumbar spine,” says Dr. Haft. “We were able to achieve a fantastic correction of his scoliosis while sparing most of his lumbar spine and preserving his flexibility.”

Alec’s family noticed a huge difference in his appearance almost immediately. He went into the surgery about five-foot, five-inches tall and came out over five-foot, seven inches tall – taller than his mom, he says enthusiastically. He’s even added a little more growth, standing about five-foot, nine today.

“I always tell people he went in a boy and came out a man,” says Anne, sharing the family joke. “He was taller than me when he got up walking the day after surgery.”

Back on the court

While most people take close to a year to recover from the surgery, Alec was back playing basketball in six months. He opted not to go back to playing football to focus on other sports. Alec states that his game, both on the basketball court and baseball field, is as good as ever.

“He did a really good job,” says Alec. “I have no limits today.”

Without the surgery, Alec certainly would have seen his condition worsen. And he certainly would have experienced more pain, his mother said. The family feels lucky to have found Dr. Haft, they said.

“It was nothing short of a miracle what he did,” said Anne.

Posted Date: June 2012

Competing Without Limits

With a spine curved almost 90 degrees, Alec Zimiga was concerned that his back would get in the way of the sports he loved. How would scoliosis surgery end his pain and get him back on the pitcher’s mound?