If you find Brooke Rogers sitting in class at Ardrey Kell High, she won’t be slouched in her seat like other classmates might be.
“Everyone says I have really great posture,” she says, laughing. That’s because Brooke has metal rods in her back to keep her spine straight.
After having successful scoliosis surgery a few years ago, Brooke, 17, started the first North Carolina chapter of the support group Curvy Girls, and she spends much of her time mentoring and supporting other girls with the condition.
“She has made a huge difference in the Charlotte scoliosis community,” said Katherine Southard, a spokeswoman and board member for the National Scoliosis Foundation, who lives in Charlotte. (Southard was Miss North Carolina in 2009 in the Miss America pageant, and her platform was scoliosis awareness.)
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Brooke was diagnosed with scoliosis, which is an abnormal curvature of the spine, when she was 10, but was told it was a minor condition. But the curvature got worse, and by age 14, doctors told her she’d need surgery.
Eighth and ninth grades were a tough time with an S-shaped spine: “Everything was sticking out and rubbing weird,” she said, adding that she remembers wishing she looked like everyone else. “I felt really alone.”
Brooke had successful surgery the next year, and she was immediately 2 inches taller with a straightened back.
Throughout the surgery process, her doctor, Michael Wattenbarger, said she could reach out to Southard, who was another patient of his. Southard met with her and told her about the international, peer-led support group Curvy Girls, which didn’t have a chapter in North Carolina.
“From there, Brooke just ran with it,” said her mom, Jonnie Rogers.
After her surgery, Brooke had a lengthy phone interview with founding members of Curvy Girls before getting the green light to start a group. “From there, it just blew up,” Brooke said.
There are now about 20 active members in the group, and while most hail from Charlotte, some come from as far as the Triangle area and Asheville. Brooke organizes meetings every couple of months, but she’s in constant contact with the girls, offering support and trading tips.
“She talks to girls I don’t even know about,” Rogers said.
Brooke has given Wattenbarger permission to share her medical information, like X-rays, with girls who have just been diagnosed with scoliosis for comparison. She also talks to them and their families in his office to offer advice and encouragement. Brooke and her mother also visit girls at the hospital who are having or who have had spinal surgery.
“I think it’s a big help to our patients and the families (who are) going through surgery,” Wattenbarger said. “I think it’s a lot more helpful to talk to them.”
Wattenbarger, who performs between 75 and 125 scoliosis surgeries in Charlotte a year, said scoliosis affects girls seven times more than boys. Brooke hopes to intern with him sometime this summer.
At Ardrey Kell, Brooke is mentoring three classmates who have the condition, and she often posts informational fliers in the nurse’s office.
Looking toward the future, Brooke hopes to see a few things happen after she graduates. She’d like to see more Curvy Girl chapters in the state, so meetings are accessible to more girls. For her senior exit project, Brooke researched in-school testing for scoliosis, which has diminished in the Charlotte area. The screening, she said, is as simple as bending over and having someone observe how your spine looks.
“A lot of people are diagnosed later,” she said. “It’s very treatable if it’s diagnosed early enough.” She found that some insurance companies reimburse schools for testing.
Next fall, Brooke is headed to Clemson University, where she’s been accepted into the nursing school. She’d like to be a pediatric nurse, and plans to make time to mentor girls with scoliosis in the future.
Southard said she’s enjoyed watching Brooke transition from being a shy, struggling girl to one of enthusiasm and strength.
“People say some people put others before themselves, but Brooke really does that,” Southard said. “She’s really generous with her time and energy ... and it’s refreshing to see someone her age care so much about other people.”