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Innovative spine-stretching surgery helps 9-year-old boy stand tall

Nine-year-old David “Tre” Hall stood ramrod straight as he extended his right hand to formally greet a visitor to the Cheektowaga home he shares with his mother, Melissa, and his 6-year-old brother, Aiden.

Tre was diagnosed with early onset scoliosis when he was just 3, so standing straight was not something he could do at all before he underwent an innovative spine-stretching surgery that placed titanium growing rods in his back to slowly correct the curve in his spine. In the meantime, Tre insisted that the cutting-edge procedure hadn’t left him feeling any different than he did before.

“I feel taller, but I don’t feel anything else,” said the fourth-grader, who attends Cleveland-Hill Elementary School.

Melissa Hall observed the difference in her son’s posture almost immediately.

“Right after surgery, I noticed the difference. I saw that he was standing a lot straighter, but once they did the X-rays, then you could see – wow – he is really standing straight. I’m trying to make him conscious of his posture,” she said.


On Tuesday, April 26, thousands of volunteers will help sell a special Kids Day edition of The Buffalo News. The proceeds from the sale of this special edition are presented to Variety, the Children’s Charity, to benefit Women and Children’s Hospital of Buffalo, the Robert Warner MD Center for Children with Special Needs, Children’s Charities of Western New York and Cradle Beach.


The insertion of the new rods, performed last August by Dr. Jeremy P. Doak, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Women & Children’s Hospital of Buffalo, marked the first time this specific surgery had been done on a child in Buffalo. The Magnetic Expansion Control, or MAGEC, spinal bracing and distraction system that was inserted in Tre’s back received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration only about a year ago, Doak said. It involved attaching titanium rods to Tre’s spine with screws inserted into the vertebrae and a magnetically expandable box.

“There is an actual magnetic actuator,” Doak said. “So it responds and lengthens to another magnet that you use to kind of put over top of the outside of his spine to (lengthen it).”

“All he does is lie on his stomach on a bed and there’s a little handheld device that we run over his back, right over where the magnetically extendable rod is,” he added.

Once Tre’s spine reaches mature height, sometime in his early teens, a final definitive spinal fusion surgery will likely be required and the extendable rods in his back will be removed.

In the meantime, the growing rods that are in place in his spine will significantly decrease the number of surgeries Tre will require before then. To date, he has had a total of 14 back surgeries.

“He had his first surgery at 2 years old,” his mother said.

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Tre was barely a year old when Hall first noticed a pronounced curvature in his spine while she was giving him bath.

“He was just kind of leaning to the side and what I did was I ran my finger up his spine, and I cried. There was an actual curve,” Hall said.

Their pediatrician in Memphis, Tenn., where Tre was born, sent them to an orthopedic pediatrician who, after ordering X-rays of the infant’s back, diagnosed him with congenital scoliosis.

“I’m thinking, in my mind: ‘How are they going to do an X-ray on a 12-month-old?’ ” Tre’s mother recalled.

Of course, the X-rays were nowhere near as traumatic as the numerous, subsequent back surgeries Tre was required to undergo to correct the curvature of his still-growing spine.

“The problem with early onset scoliosis is you’re small, obviously, so your spine hasn’t grown all the way,” Doak said.

“Your spine is short, but also it doesn’t allow your lungs to develop. So without some type of (intervention), your scoliosis will worsen and compress your lungs and make it harder for you to breathe,” he said.

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Tre’s initial surgery involved the insertion of a device called a Vertically Expandable Prosthetic Titanium Rib, or VEPTR, that needed to be surgically lengthened every six months. After his first surgery, the toddler had to relearn how to walk.

“He had to use these little walkers and little wheelchairs. It was just, obviously, heartbreaking for me,” Hall said.

Tre also faced the risk of infection after the surgeries.

“He got a really bad infection,” his mother said. “They had to open his back. His back was open for about two days to let the infection drain. They covered it with a plastic wrap ... and they were giving him aggressive antibiotics.”

It was actually through Tre’s surgeon in Memphis that Hall learned about the new MAGEC procedure that ultimately spared Tre the twice-yearly surgeries. Doak took over Tre’s case in January 2015, after the family relocated to Buffalo, which is Hall’s hometown.

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Doak fulfilled his commitment as an orthopedic surgeon at the Naval Hospital in Pensacola, Fla., in 2013. He then completed a fellowship at the Brown University Alpert School of Medicine in Providence, R.I., before joining the medical staff at Women & Children’s in 2014.

“My first time meeting Dr. Doak was when we came to the emergency room back in January 2014, and he’s been right there with us every step of the way,” Hall said. “And, what he also did – which I do respect – is that he still keeps in close contact with (Tre’s) surgeon in Memphis.”

The surgery to have the MAGEC rods inserted in spine Tre’s spine had not yet received approval from the FDA when the family lived in Memphis.“The rods just became FDA-approved about a year ago,” said Doak.

Tre had the surgery last August. It was a first not only for Doak and Women & Children’s, but the first time the MAGEC procedure was done in Western New York.

“Now patients and their families in the region do not have to travel far to receive state-of-the-art, cutting-edge care,” Doak said. “They can get it right here at Women & Children’s Hospital of Buffalo.”