Hunchback and in crippling pain, Bernadine Radice was facing the prospect of living the rest of her life in agony until life-changing surgery 18 months ago.
The 32-year-old Pickering Brook woman has her surgeon to thank for corrective surgery that reduced the chronic curvature of her spine – and four people who donated their hip bones after hip replacement surgery.
Bernadine was just five years old when her mother first sought advice from a doctor, concerned about her daughter’s posture.
“Mum noticed it when I was five and she took me to the doctor. The doctor brushed it off saying: ‘She’s lazy, she’s slouching, she’s fine, she’s fine’,” she said.
For years Bernadine endured a revolving door of medical appointments until one doctor took her complaint seriously. She was diagnosed with Scheuermann’s disease, a developmental disorder of the spine that causes wedging of the vertebrae and results in a hunch back.
But the diagnosis did not herald answers. Two years of wearing a restrictive back brace 23 hours a day, seven days a week did not help, and at the age of 18, Bernadine was told her deformity was “cosmetic” and nothing could be done to relieve her pain.
“It was a constant ache in my spine,” she said. “It was there all the time and caused lots of headaches. I didn’t think about it much at the time being young, but once I turned 18 I noticed it more. I just put it down to the intense labour working on our family orchard.”
Her symptoms worsened and four years ago, while picking fruit, her back seized.
“I will never forget that day. It was horrific,” Bernadine said. “It was like someone was in there ripping my spine apart. The pain was excruciating. It caused me to drop to my knees. I tried to grab onto the branches, but I was pulling all the fruit and leaves off with me.
“I shook it off and sat on the ground for maybe 30 seconds and picked myself back up thinking it had passed, but it happened again.
“That was the beginning of the end. I haven’t worked since.”
In August 2016 – 25 years after her mother first raised concerns – Bernadine underwent corrective surgery. Orthopaedic surgeon Peter Woodland cut out the four wedged vertebrae, replaced them with donor bone and inserted two large rods for support.
“The results have been amazing,” Bernadine said. “I can’t thank Dr Woodland enough.
“I have gained 5cm in height. I’ve gone from an 85 per cent curvature of the spine to 33 per cent, well within the normal range now. And the pain is so much better – it’s manageable.”
Bernadine is eagerly waiting for November when she will be assessed to return to work.
Now she is sharing her story in a bid to raise awareness about bone and tissue donation and the important work of PlusLife, WA’s only bone and tissue bank.
It comes as PlusLife prepares to open its new $10 million state-of-the-art facility in Midland on Saturday, March 24.
“I don’t know where I would be without PlusLife and the special donors whose bones I received,” Bernadine said. “I didn’t even know the bone and tissue bank existed until I was put in the position where I needed a bone donation.
“Through its donor programs, PlusLife really does make amazing differences to the lives of people just like me.”
Bernadine said she was extremely thankful for the bone donations and called on others to consider becoming donors.
PlusLife managing director Anne Cowie said the new facilities would allow the health service to grow its bone and tissue management operations and continue its vital work supporting the community.
Since opening as the Perth Bone and Tissue Bank 25 years ago, Plus Life has provided more than 18,000 grafts to more than 10,000 patients, many of whom are children with bone cancer and spinal deformities.
“PlusLife has helped improve thousands of lives through the generous donations of Australian tissue,” Mrs Cowie said.
“This new building means we will be able to continue our important work managing bone and tissue donations in WA as we strive to meet growing demand for our services.
“We greatly appreciate the State Government’s support, which will ensure we can continue to provide a high quality service for future generations.”
PlusLife, which manages bone and tissue donations in WA, has two donor programs. Living patients having hip replacement surgery can donate the ball part of their hip, which is used commonly in a ground-up form for children with spinal deformities. And, like organ donation, bone, tendons and ligaments can be donated after death with consent from next-of-kin.
Grafts are used for patients undergoing life-changing operations, such as surgery to treat spinal deformities, complex joint surgery and treatments for patients with dental and facial bone loss. In many cases it has saved young adults the distress of a limb amputation.
Mrs Cowie said there was a need for greater community awareness about bone and tissue donation, which greatly improves outcomes for patients.
“While organ donation has a high community profile and is known as a life-saving gift, many people are not aware that tissue donation is actually possible,” Mrs Cowie said.
“The donation of tissue can have life-changing benefits for patients. One deceased tissue donor has the potential to improve the wellbeing, sight and mobility of up to 60 people.”
To register as a bone, tissue or organ donor, visit www.donorregister.gov.au or via Medicare online.