British Columbia

Saskatoon teen's spinal surgery a success after COVID-19 almost robbed her of the chance

Bronwyn Joanis's spinal scoliosis surgery in Vancouver was cancelled just hours before its scheduled time on March 17 due to COVID-19 precautions, and time was running out on her chance to undergo the rare procedure.

Bronwyn Joanis's rare surgery was cancelled just hours before its scheduled time as pandemic hit

Bronwyn Joanis with her father Marcel Joanis outside the Ronald McDonald House in Vancouver on June 30, almost a week after her surgery. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

A week after long-awaited spinal surgery, Bronwyn Joanis says she can't wait to get back home to Saskatoon to see family and — once she's a little steadier — finally ride her new bike.

The 13-year-old's spinal scoliosis surgery in Vancouver was cancelled just hours before its scheduled time on March 17 due to COVID-19 precautions, and time was running out on her chance to undergo the rare procedure.

As the pandemic developed, closing operating rooms and diverting health-care staff, the wait for a rescheduled date began to take a mental toll on Bronwyn and her parents, Marcel and Lorie.

With pandemic restrictions in B.C. beginning to ease, she was finally re-booked for the procedure, which went ahead June 24.

More than three months after it had been initially scheduled, Bronwyn Joanis received spinal tethering surgery and is now recovering. She and her parents are flying back home to Saskatoon on July 8. (Marcel Joanis)

'The rock-star kid'

Marcel Joanis says he's in "shock and awe" at how well the delicate operation at B.C. Children's Hospital went — but mostly at the pure grit of his daughter.

"They kept calling her the rock-star kid," said Joanis, a registered nurse.

He and his wife, a rehabilitation therapist, are staying at Vancouver's Ronald McDonald House — accommodation for sick children and their family members who need to travel for treatment — as their daughter recovers.

Bronwyn Joanis sits with her mother Lorie at B.C. Children's Hospital in Vancouver after her surgery. (Marcel Joanis)

Joanis says his daughter was determined to get out of bed hours after the surgery to try to straighten her rare left-sided scoliosis.

"That night, even, she was like, 'Can I get out of bed?' and we were like …No! She wanted to go. 'Let's get movin' here,'" Joanis said in an interview with CBC.

Anxious wait as time window shrank

Bronwyn was born with a Chiari malformation, a condition that causes brain tissue to grow into the spinal canal.

It had left the teenager with daily pain and unable to do everyday activities like riding her bike. 

The specialized surgery she underwent is called vertebral body tethering, which was pioneered in Canada by orthopedic surgeon Dr. Firoz Miyanji. The procedure straightens the spine without fusion or metal rods and offers a much faster recovery than other scoliosis treatments.

However, Miyanji warned the family that the procedure was only effective while the spine was at a certain angle, so there was a limited time window in which Bronwyn, a growing teenager, could be treated.

That led to many anxious weeks for Bronwyn and her family. 

Bronwyn Joanis, 13, was born with a Chiari malformation that caused curvature of her spine and has led to several surgeries. (Marcel Joanis)

But last Wednesday the teen was prepped and showed no anxiety, her father said. This was, after all, not the teen's first surgery.

"Normally I give her a kiss on the forehead and wish her luck or whatever, but we were all masked and gowned — so I was just able to say goodbye. She was really good," said Joanis.

'She had a smile on her face'

After a five-hour procedure, the surgeon emerged and reported success, Joanis said.

"I could hear them talking to her and suctioning her. It was kind of rough," he said. 

But his concerns began to fade with signs of his daughter's fast recovery.

Bronwyn was released early, after four days, and Joanis pushed her back to Ronald McDonald House. By Tuesday, he said, she did the macarena dance for him — albeit in a chair.

"She had a smile on her face," he said.

The 13-year-old managed a short interview with CBC News on Tuesday.

"I feel good … I feel better because I know the surgery is done," she said.

The Joanis family hopes to head home on July 8.


Yvette Brend is a Vancouver journalist. or on Twitter or Instagram @ybrend


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