Diving Dynamo

By Loretta Coureas

Emily Padgett, 14, is an athletic dynamo. She loves sports and says she would "rather die" than not be able to compete!

More than a year ago, during a growth spurt, a small indent in the center of her chest suddenly became more pronounced and her posture stooped. She realized she was often very tired, struggling to breathe normally while participating in one or another of her favorite sports.

The Neptune Beach, Florida, teen learned from her pediatrician that the dent – known medically as pectus excavatum – worsened when she hit puberty and would probably need to be surgically corrected to return her to normal activity. Otherwise, pressure on her lungs and heart could severely curtail her activities.

To Emily, that felt like a nose dive. Would she not be able to pursue all her favorite sports – swimming, competitive diving, basketball, beach volleyball, football?

Her parents, Don and Martha Padgett, vowed to find the best and most experienced doctors for counseling, and, if necessary, corrective surgery. "We learned that there are different ways to correct this condition surgically and decisions would have to be made," Martha said. "Our pediatrician gave us the best advice. She recommended that after checking the others out, we should go see the Nuss Procedure team at Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters in Norfolk."

First, the family explored the Web. They Googled pectus excavatum and – bingo! – there was the Nuss Procedure and CHKD. "Our pediatrician encouraged us to go there because that's where we could get the skilled surgeons and nurses who really know what to do where kids are concerned."

So last fall, the Padgett family came to Norfolk for Emily's surgery, and three months later, Emily was back on the road to diving competitions.

Reporting her progress to her newfound friends on the CHKD Nuss team during her "comeback," Emily wrote to pectus coordinator Tina Haney in February: "Hey Tina, I am back at diving and feeling great. I just came back from my 8th-grade trip to Virginia – you know, driving two full nights, practically no sleep, hanging out with friends and having a great time."

She told of playing basketball in gym again. "Hooray! It's been awhile since I've skinned both knees and elbows playing a tough game with the guys in gym. It feels awesome to get back to everything," she wrote, reporting "no problems" getting back up to speed. She described all the dives she was able to do and how she was having no problems related to her surgery or the small bar which held her sternum in place.

By mid-April, Emily was diving in invitational and regional meets, covering all the dives for which she had trained so hard before her surgery. She wrote to Gustin: "Hey Tina, I have a lot of great news. I went to my first club diving meet with my [North Florida Diving] team since surgery. It was the annual Orlando Invitational. I did great, dove awesome and got TWO silver medals."

By May, Emily wrote of her class trip: "We went to Islands of Adventure theme park. I rode the Hulk (the biggest roller coaster there) 8 times. It goes 67 miles per hour and upside down. This weekend, my family went to Disney and I rode Space Mountain 6 times, Splash Mountain and the new Expedition Everest roller coaster. I wanted to tell you because through all this, my chest never hurt once! How cool is that? I LOVE roller coasters, and I'm so happy I can ride them without pain. Luv ya, Emily."

To Gustin and the rest of the Nuss team at CHKD, this feedback from an enthusiastic patient represents the achievement of their goals. "When you know that the pain, discomfort and health problems suffered by pectus excavatum patients can adversely impact their activities, it makes us proud to help them regain the freedom to do whatever they want," Gustin said.

That brand of care and caring has returned Emily Padgett to diving into life with gusto where she is most comfortable.

In her own words

By Emily Padgett, 14, of Neptune Beach, Florida

“And first place, from North Florida Diving, Emily Padgett!” I climb onto the center block on the awards stand as a gold medal is placed around my neck and I’m handed my score sheet. The crowd erupts in applause and cameras flash as I smile, the happiest I’ve been in a long time.

Standing there, at the top with my first gold medal ever, I know just how blessed I am.

Six months ago I never would have imagined myself here. I didn’t know if I would even be able to dive, let alone compete and win.

I was born with a small dent in my chest.

Through the years it never bothered me, and I really didn’t notice it or even know what it was. But about a year ago, it gradually became worse until my family took me to my pediatrician. That’s when we discovered I had pectus excavatum.

We researched my condition, and as a family, decided to visit the best pectus doctor in the world, Dr. Nuss. We flew up to Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters in Virginia for my appointment and met with Dr. Nuss, Dr. Kuhn and Tina Haney. They recommended I have surgery, the Nuss Procedure.

The problem? They had never operated on a diver before and didn’t know if I would be able to dive after the operation. Even if I were lucky and could, I still had to be out of diving and all other contact sports for three months.

I am a competitive springboard diver for North Florida Diving Club and practice four or five days a week, sometimes three hours a day, year round. We arrive at practice early to stretch and then stay late to condition and work out. Daily conditioning includes push ups, pull ups, pike ups, sit ups, crunches, side crunches, lunges, jumping lunges and wall sits, and working with medicine balls and more. Our team travels often to compete in various meets.

I also dive for my school, Fletcher Middle School.

I love diving, so it was hard to consider anything that would put me out of it for so long.

I also play first-string for my school’s basketball team, run, play football, swim and play beach volleyball. So three months seemed like a lifetime for me to be out of some of these sports. But I wanted to be healthy when I was older and be able to play sports as an adult, so we scheduled a time for the surgery.

November 10 was set as the big day. I left school early November 7 to fly to Virginia. I met with my surgeons, Dr. Nuss and Dr. Kuhn. When I left the hospital that day I felt calm and ready for the operation.

The morning of surgery, I arrived at the hospital early. I know the anesthesiologist did an excellent job because going to sleep was the last thing I remember about that day. I was in the hospital for about a week.

Through it all, my nurses were great. A few stand out, like Miss Dorothy, who was so sweet and nice to me and really encouraging when I didn’t feel well. Also, the child life specialist, Liz Cook, visited me often and let me borrow movies to watch while I was in the hospital. Of course, Tina, Dr. Nuss and Dr. Kuhn were great, too!

Three months after we flew home, I began diving again. To my delight, I could! For the most part, I didn’t have any pain though it was tough starting back at the beginning.

Since then, I have reached and moved beyond the skill level I was before I had surgery. I would never have been able to dive like I do today if it weren’t for the surgery. It changed my posture, and now I can stand up straight. Having more lung capacity helps me as well. Before, I was tired and sometimes out of breath at the end of practice. That has since changed. My endurance is so much better for basketball, too. I would have trouble breathing when I used to run, and my chest would hurt, but now when I run, I feel great.

After six months, looking back at it all, it was a wonderful experience and I would not have had it happen any other way. I e-mail Tina often to tell her of my progress and my diving. I can’t wait for my next appointment to show Dr. Nuss, Dr. Kuhn and Tina how well I’m doing.

I know I am so blessed to have such awesome doctors and a successful surgery. Thank you, CHKD.

Emily’s surgeons at CHKD, Donald Nuss and Ann Kuhn, practice with CHKD Health System’s pediatric surgery division.

This story was featured in the third quarter 2006 issue of KidStuff, a publication of Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters.