Raising the Bar

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Victoria Hecht

Eileen Boyle dancingWhen Eileen Boyle dances, her moves are breathtaking. Yet just a few years ago, Eileen felt winded and was losing stamina, even during routine dance practices. In fact, just climbing the stairs in her home seemed to take her breath away.

In her sophomore year in high school, Eileen began having trouble keeping up with her dance classmates. Her concerned parents, Linda and Chuck, took her to the pediatrician who suspected that her breathing difficulties were caused by pectus excavatum (PE), an abnormality of the chest wall that caused Eileen’s chest to be depressed in the center between her ribs. Like many teens with PE, Eileen had always had a slight indentation in the mid-chest, but it became more pronounced as she grew, compressing the lungs and heart and making it harder to breathe, especially in dance class. 

“I didn’t make a connection with the shape of my ribs and the fact that I had lots of difficulty breathing when I danced and always got more out of breath than everyone else in my class,” the teen said. 

The Boyles, who live in Albemarle County, looked to CHKD and its renowned center for chest wall repair for help. The hospital is the home of the Nuss Procedure – a minimally invasive surgery for PE pioneered by Dr. Donald Nuss in the late 1980s – and is recognized nationally and internationally as the premier center for treatment of chest-wall abnormalities. The center’s surgical team performs an average of 130 chest wall repairs annually with patients coming from across the state, the country and even the world.

Eileen Boyle smilingEileen – diagnosed with progressive, severe pectus excavatum – was a good candidate for the Nuss Procedure, explains Dr. Michele Lombardo, a pediatric surgeon at CHKD. Tests confirmed that Eileen’s PE was putting pressure on her heart and restricting her lung expansion. “Eileen had just completed a growth spurt when I met her, and her symptoms had worsened. Her dance performances were becoming increasingly more difficult,” says Dr. Lombardo.

Unlike open surgical techniques, the Nuss Procedure uses just two small incisions on the side of the patient’s chest in order to insert a curved metal bar under the sternum. The bar is then rotated, propping the sternum into the correct position. The bar is secured to the patient’s ribs and typically remains in place for two to three years to push out the rib cage and restore normal chest wall anatomy. The Nuss bar is ultimately removed in an outpatient procedure.

“After the operation, breathing mechanics are improved and similar to patients without PE. This results in improvements in breathing and exercise tolerance,” Dr. Lombardo says. 

Her family made the decision to schedule surgery during the summer before Eileen’s senior year of high school. Dr. Lombardo performed the Nuss Procedure on Eileen in July of 2013. The procedure went smoothly, and after recovering in the hospital for a few days, Eileen returned to her home in Charlottesville with plans to make regular follow-up visits to CHKD every few months. 

Eileen experienced a dramatic transformation right away, with the absence of what she described as a dent in her chest the size of a baseball. “I now understand what it’s like to have a normal chest,” she says.

More important, though, are the physical and health benefits Eileen will have for the rest of her life. “In normal day-to-day exercise, I’ve definitely noticed an improvement in my breathing,” says Eileen.

She’ll depend on that stamina to make her dance aspirations come true. And she’s well on her way. In fact, just months after the Nuss Procedure, Eileen felt well enough to audition for a prestigious dance training program with the Joffrey Ballet in New York City – an opportunity that could set her career in motion. Newly transformed with her Nuss bar in place, Eileen’s performance won her a spot in the esteemed program. 

“I’m so excited about training in New York,” says Eileen, who left this summer to study contemporary dance. She says she’s prepared for the rigors of training eight hours a day, five days a week and, eventually, launching a professional dance career. 

As they watch their daughter make this incredible leap toward her dreams, the Boyles know they made the right choice by going to CHKD for Eileen’s life-changing Nuss surgery. “Dance is everything to her,” says Linda, “And now she can pursue the career that she’s always wanted.”

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Dancer Eileen Boyle is a Nuss Procedure patient