COLUMBIA, S.C. – Jalen Castle joins her teammates on the Midlands All-Star squad who will compete this weekend for the PGA Junior League Golf National Championship at Walt Disney World's Palm Course, a scenario so unlikely and yet so appropriate.
A year ago, she received a medical diagnosis no one wants to hear: idiopathic scoliosis. In layman's terms, that translates into curvature of the spine. Conventional treatment and long-term outlook sound grim.
Appropriate? Isn't Disney World where fairy tales come true?
"Jalen has a story to tell, and it's not about golf," her mom, Elizabeth, said, and indeed she does. She is a poster child of the marvelous work done at nationwide network of Shriners Hospitals for Children.
An eighth-grader at Carolina Springs Middle School who plays on the White Knoll High varsity golf team, she faced the prospect of the medical condition robbing her of the opportunity to excel at the game she loves.
Instead, she thrives on the course. She can bomb a 230-yard drive. She can work magic on the greens like her 45-foot eagle putt on her final hole in the Columbia area team's victory in the regional finals. She helped her high school team finish sixth in the state tournament.
In the waning moments of the United States' stunning ice hockey victory over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics, broadcaster Al Michaels offered a never-to-be-forgotten thought for those short on hope – "Do you believe in miracles? YES!"
The Castle family – dad Darin, mom Elizabeth and daughters Jensen and Jalen – might ponder the question and share the answer.
'Something didn't look right'
Golf has been part of the fabric of the Castle girls' lives since their dad introduced them to the game around age 2 or 3. Good shots and good holes in four- or five-hole "rounds" earned rewards of soda or candy, Jalen said, and that introduction evolved into age-group competition.
Darin, a math instructor at White Knoll High who coaches the girls' golf team, provided the lessons and his daughters have brought home plenty of hardware.
Then Jalen's medical diagnosis landed like a Joe Louis left hook.
The journey from the valley of despair a year ago to today's mountain of triumph began with her trying on a bathing suit. She sought mom's opinion and, Elizabeth said, "Something didn't look right."
Initial tests in the summer of 2014 showed a 42-degree curve in Jalen's spine. Months of wearing a tight brace – "she couldn't cough or take a deep breath," her mom said – for 16 hours a day did no good.
"Worse," Jalen said. "Up to 58 degrees" by this past February.
The accepted procedure at that point called for surgery that includes utilizing metallic implants to correct some of the curvature and hold it in the correct position until a bone graft, placed at the time of surgery, consolidates and creates a rigid fusion in the area of the curve. Scoliosis surgery usually involves joining the vertebrae together permanently – called spinal fusion.
"That sounds so archaic," Elizabeth Castle said. "We thought, 'Surely there must be another way,' and there was. We had to find something else; it's your child's future."
The parents scoured the Internet and discovered surgeons at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Philadelphia had developed an alternative surgical approach to treating progressive adolescent idiopathic scoliosis. Rather than fusion, Dr. Amer Samdani's approach – an alternative treatment called anterior vertebral body tethering (AVBT) – can accomplish the same goal of straightening the curve and stopping its progression. It also is minimally invasive and has a faster recovery time.
"We called and made a consultation appointment for March," Elizabeth Castle said. "They told us Jalen was a prime candidate and the Shriners took over. They have been so great – those at the Jamil Temple here and those in Philadelphia – and there are no words to convey what they have meant to us."
To perform the procedure, surgeons insert the tether thorascopically through three small incisions and run the tether through the screw heads. If necessary, the tether can be adjusted for growth and loosened to prevent over correction. Although AVBT remains in the testing stage, Samdani and his colleagues have done more than 70 of these procedures and seen positive results after two years. More than 90 percent of the patients studied have avoided a fusion to date, although longer-term followup is needed. Their data has been presented at a few professional conferences, and additional studies comparing it to traditional treatments such as bracing and fusion must be conducted.
Samdani performed the surgery at no cost on April 8 and had Jalen walking the next day.
"We're in awe of everything that has happened," her mom said. "She was back to normal in two weeks and she could swing a golf club in six weeks. I can't say enough about the great things the Shriners do for youngsters."
Do you believe in miracles?
'A wild, crazy ride'
The national championship tournament at Disney World is just the latest step in Jalen's whirlwind of activity since her surgery.
Although she could not play her usual summer junior golf schedule, she appeared at a fund-raiser at the Windermere Club, joined the PGA Junior League, competed on her high school team and went to Las Vegas two weeks ago to participate in activities at the PGA Tour tournament sponsored by the Shriners.
The latter: Wow!
In Las Vegas, Jalen played in the tournament's pro-am with professional Daniel Summerhays and contributed two birdies to the team's score. She was a standard bearer for two rounds, one with the South Carolina connection of Ben Martin and Russell Henley. She met the champion, Smylie Kaufman, a Tour rookie who shot a final-round 61.
"It was a wonderful experience," Jalen said. "(The pros) were great."
She and her mom took the red-eye flight home after the tournament's end on Sunday and Jalen joined her White Knoll teammates in the state tournament the next day. And now it's off to Florida for the PGA Junior Golf League championship that features eight teams from across the country.
What's next? Well, Jalen would like to meet her favorite LPGA Tour player, Stacy Lewis.
Why Stacy Lewis?
Lewis was diagnosed with scoliosis at age 11, wore a back brace for 18 hours a day until she finished high school and then underwent a "different" surgical procedure. Oh, and Lewis came back to win the NCAA individual title, twice earned the LPGA player of the year award and now ranks third in the world rankings.
"All this has been a wild, crazy ride," Elizabeth Castle said. "It's really hard to believe all that has happened in the past year and how wonderful the Shriners have been. What has happened and what they did for Jalen is such a great story."
Do you believe in miracles?
This article was written by Bob Spear from The State and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.