Crawford Spine Center
Patient Stories | Max and Spinal Fusion Surgery

Stronger, Faster, Taller: Max Returns to the Pool without Back Pain

The day after Max Bultemeyer’s spinal fusion surgery, he couldn’t wait to get out of his hospital bed. Not to check out his newly straightened spine in the mirror—that would come later. Max wanted to know how many inches he’d gained in height from the procedure. When the nurse announced he was 5 feet, 10 inches tall, he almost couldn’t believe his ears.

“I grew two-and-a-half inches in one day,” said Max, 17. “When I went into the hallway to walk around, I felt like I was on stilts. It’s all I could talk about!”

But the good news got even better: Max’s delicate surgery was a success, according to Max’s pediatric orthopaedic surgeon, Peter Sturm, MD. Max left the hospital focused on one goal: returning to his swim team, the Dayton Raiders, as quickly as possible.

The Decision to Have Spinal Fusion Surgery

Max began swimming competitively in the second grade and quickly showed promise. Three years later, at an annual checkup, his pediatrician in Beavercreek, Ohio, diagnosed him with idiopathic scoliosis (meaning the cause is unknown). 

“Over the next few years, the spine curvature worsened,” said Max’s mother, Beth. “When Max was 15, he had a big growth spurt. After that, the deformity was very noticeable. And he was starting to experience back pain and couldn’t always finish his workouts. That’s when our local orthopaedic specialist began talking to us about surgery.”

The Bultemeyers were uncomfortable with their specialist’s surgical approach and scheduled a second opinion appointment with Dr. Sturm, director of the Crawford Spine Center at Cincinnati Children’s.

Dr. Sturm recommended a standard posterior spinal instrumentation fusion. The surgery would involve making a large incision along Max’s spine and attaching a cobalt chrome rod to the spine from top to bottom. The procedure would align Max’s spine and improve his curve significantly. But also, it meant that Max’s spinal motion could potentially be affected to some degree. Dr. Sturm cautioned that this could affect some swimming activities, such as doing the backstroke and completing a flip turn.

Knowing his spine curvature would only worsen without surgery, Max and his family decided to move forward and scheduled it for July 2022. “I was nervous about it the closer we got to my surgery date, but once we arrived at the hospital, I felt relieved,” Max said. “Everyone was calm and confident, like they’d done this surgery many times.”

Max was right—our surgical team performs about 200 fusion surgeries annually and has extensive training and experience. Spine experts at Cincinnati Children’s have developed protocols to ensure families understand what the surgery involves, how to manage pain after surgery and what to expect during recovery. 

Max went home two days after his surgery, and the first two weeks of recovery were tough. The incision pain made sleeping difficult, and he spent most of his days trying to get comfortable. But Max had no time to feel sorry for himself—fall swim season was fast approaching. Eager to fast-track his recovery at the two-week mark, Max followed Dr. Sturm’s instructions to walk every day, logging five miles daily with Beth and his dad, Ryan. He also participated in physical therapy to strengthen his back muscles.

After about a month, Max eased himself back into swimming, starting with 10 minutes a day of walking in the water. By month two, he was feeling more himself and able to swim longer, taking breaks now and then to stretch his back muscles. In October, he returned to his former routine of swimming six days a week.

Max Returns to Competition

“The first time I saw Max compete in backstroke after his surgery, I teared up,” Beth remembered. “I’m so grateful to Dr. Sturm and his team. They changed my son’s life. I think that seeing him come back so strong has inspired his teammates.”

In February 2023, as a high school sophomore, Max qualified for the Ohio High School Swimming & Diving Championships’ 200-meter freestyle event and placed 22nd at the meet. He continues improving his times in mid-distance and sprint events and hopes to get recruited by a Division I university this year

“Before my surgery, my back was really messed up, and the curvature was noticeable,” said Max. “Now, after going through the surgery and working so hard to get back into swimming, I have more self-confidence. And the incision is kind of cool. When little kids ask me about it at the pool, I tell them I got attacked by a tiger and fought it off.”

Dr. Sturm never tires of hearing about patients like Max who thrive after fusion surgery.

“Left untreated, scoliosis can lead to serious medical problems including pain, increasing deformity and heart and lung issues,” he said. “Max is one of many athletes we’ve treated at our center—in fact, one of my surgical patients played basketball in the WNBA. It’s a great feeling to offer a surgery that can return kids to activities they enjoy.”

Including swimming—and even flip turns.

(Published September 2023)