Kate Salerno's story

With not one but seven records in track & field, it’s hard to believe that, at one point, Kate’s spine was so curved that her lungs were in jeopardy. 

Photo of Kate Salerno at her graduationKate Salerno was diagnosed with scoliosis at age 13. Her spinal curvature was already greater than 50 degrees, and several different doctors insisted that surgery—sooner rather than later—was her best option. This news was a blow to Kate, a young athlete who loved competing in tennis, diving, volleyball, and track. 

Kate felt defeated: defeated by scoliosis and defeated by her seemingly limited options.

Then she met Dr. Michael G. Vitale, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Och Spine at NewYork-Presbyterian, and Ana Lucia Professor of Pediatric Orthopedic Surgery at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. Dr. Vitale explained that while Kate’s spine curve did make her a candidate for surgery, they could also explore a non-operative approach if that’s what she and her family preferred. 

“While the ‘textbooks’ inform us about what’s best for most patients, patients’ preferences regarding treatment options are critically important,” says Dr. Vitale. “If a patient and their family understand risks, benefits, and options of various approaches, my role is to support their decision.”

Kate was thrilled to try out an alternative to surgery. If this treatment plan worked, she wouldn’t have to undergo an operation, and most importantly, she wouldn’t have to give up doing what she loved—playing sports and training to be the best athlete she could be. 

Dr. Vitale fitted Kate for a custom Rigo-Cheneau brace—a lightweight, corrective spine brace for scoliosis patients. He also had her start Schroth physical therapy, a method that focuses on exercises, breathing, and posture awareness to help correct a patient’s spine position.

Kate responded well to Dr. Vitale’s intervention; her thoracic curve straightened to 35 degrees over time, and her lumbar curve went from 31 to 17 degrees. By age 17, Kate was weaned out of her brace. 

Thanks to Dr. Vitale’s holistic approach, Kate was able to stay focused on sports without taking time out to undergo or recover from surgery. Though she no longer competes in tennis or diving, Kate continued playing volleyball and established herself as a star on the track. 

Today, at age 22, Kate is thriving; as a recent graduate from the University of Southern California (USC), Kate looks forward to starting her marketing career in New York City this summer.

“I am forever grateful to Dr. Vitale for not only showing me how I could make a difference in my own life but for allowing me the opportunity to do so while I was in his care,” Kate says. “He helped me believe in myself and find a strength and courage inside that I didn’t know I had.”

“To be able to say today that I am an athlete; I have scoliosis; and most importantly, I didn’t let it stop me means more than you can ever imagine.”