Epworth’s generosity gives young girl hope

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Not many people will fondly remember 2020, but the year ended on a high for one young girl who was given hope for a better future with life-changing surgery provided by Epworth HealthCare.

Nichole Jamelo, 11, was flown from the Philippines to Melbourne for a complex back operation by the Australian charity Children First Foundation.

Her condition – a severe curvature of the spine, known as scoliosis – had been noticed by two missionaries visiting her small community near Manila.

“It stopped me from doing sport and PE and I also used to get bullied at school,” said Nichole, one of six children in her family. “But it doesn’t stop me from excelling at my school.”

Her spine had two 90-degree bends in it, resembling the shape of an ‘S’.

“It was causing her a great deal of physical distress because she was leaning over to one side, due to the stiffness of her spine,” said Associate Professor Yi Yang, who performed the operation pro-bono at Epworth's Richmond hospital.

“It was affecting her walking and potentially having a compressive effect on her organs, including her lungs.” 

He led a 10-strong theatre team for the five-hour procedure, with costs covered by Epworth and its medical services partners.

Using computer-aided 3D navigation, A/Prof Yang put 23 spinal screws into Nichole’s vertebrae, within millimetres of her spinal cord, and attached two titanium rods to straighten the spine.

This CT scan shows the severity of Nichole's spinal curvature before the operation.

She lost about a litre of blood during the surgery, but did not need a transfusion as it was suctioned, cleaned and returned to her body by a cell salvage team.

“When I first heard about Nichole’s case after a year of challenges, it gave me a warm feeling and the hope that something positive was to come out of 2020,” said Meredith Elliott, Nurse Unit Manager of the Epworth Richmond paediatric ward where the girl spent a week recovering.  

“I’ve cared for scoliosis patients for the past 17 years and Nichole’s case is hands down the most challenging I have been involved in. She is a truly brave and remarkable girl and we wish her well for the future.”

A/Prof Yang said he was pleased to have been able to make a difference to Nichole’s life.

“We are very lucky in Australia to have access to some of the best healthcare in the world. To be able to give an opportunity to someone like Nichole, who otherwise may not have had that opportunity, was a no-brainer so I jumped on board straight away,” he said.

After continuing her recovery at the Children First Foundation’s retreat in Kilmore, Nichole said she was looking forward to going home.

“It gives me hope to face the future. By having the surgery will give me self-confidence, self-worth, and a great testimony to tell the world,” she said.

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