Kids Day

Valley Children’s doctor uses new method to fix spine that requires fewer surgeries

Like any 6-year-old boy, Jayden Ortiz wants to get taller if for no other reason than to loom over his older brother, Jesiah. Oh, and the Reedley boy has another special reason.

“I want to be able to ride the Jurassic Park ride,” Jayden says during a visit to see Dr. Michael Elliott at Valley Children’s Hospital. Like many theme park rides, the Universal Studios Hollywood attraction has a height restriction.

At one point, height wasn’t Jayden’s only concern. There was concern he might never be able to walk.

Jayden was treated for a virus that left his muscles so weak that his spine began to curve under the weight of his own body. Doctors are not sure the exact reason Jayden was one of 19 youngsters in California to get the virus that caused his neuromuscular scoliosis. Within hours he went from being mobile to completely paralyzed. It’s just one of the many forms – and less common types – of scoliosis that cause the spine to curve.

Elliott, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon who spends 60-70 percent of his time dealing with patients who have issues with their spine, not only made it possible for Jayden to grow to his desired height, but he has done it with a revolutionary new procedure.

Generally, these cases require surgery to attach a medal rod to each side of the spinal column. Every six months, another surgery would be done where a small incision was made to adjust the metal rods to match the growth of the patient.

Jayden is the first patient at Valley Children’s to get the MAGnetic Expansion Control (better known as MAGEC) rods attached to his spine. The process starts traditionally with a surgery to attach a rod that is either 70 or 90 millimeters in length to each side of the spine. The big difference is that after the rods are attached, the doctor can adjust them without doing additional surgeries.

MAGEC is the work of Ellipse Technologies. A company spokesman says that the rods have been in use for only two years but are now being used in almost every major hospital for children in the United States.

Jayden’s parents, Jesse and Synthia Ortiz, first took Jayden to Children’s Hospital at Stanford. But the hospital could not get access to the MAGEC system at the time. A week after contacting Elliott at Valley Children’s, the procedure began.

“We knew Jayden would need surgery regardless if it was the magnetic or regular rods,” Synthia Ortiz says. “When this became available, we jumped all over it because we knew how much of a difference it would make.”

Attaching the rods to the spine is just the first step. Adjustments are made using an External Remote Controller (ERC), a computerized magnet that can turn the worm gears portion of the rods to the exact length needed. The process can be repeated every six months without the patient ever having to undergo surgery again.

Surgery to make an adjustment with the traditional rods can take 3-4 hours from the patient arriving to recovery. Adjustments with the ERC take 10 minutes.

Jayden says that the process feels like he’s getting a massage.

There are a variety of ways to deal with a spinal curvature. Because of many factors, not every patient is a candidate for the MAGEC system.

“I have done more than 1,000 surgeries in my career and more than 50 or 60 percent of my patients would benefit from the MAGEC system,” Elliott says.

Having fewer surgeries cuts down any potential complications. Although the new rods do cost more than the traditional variety, a study done in Britain shows that the MAGEC rods end up being more cost efficient because of fewer surgeries.

Because Jayden was the first of only two Valley Children’s Hospital patients to have the MAGEC rods, the ERC isn’t the property of the hospital. It is brought to the hospital when adjustments are planned. The next one for Jayden will be in April.

“As we get more patients who have the MAGEC rods, then we can look at getting one for the hospital,” Elliott says.

Even with the new rods, there is no way to fully correct the curve in Jayden’s spine, which is 50 degrees from vertical. Elliott hopes to get it back to at least 20 degrees.

Adjusting the spine isn’t just to make the patient taller. The average growth of the spine with young children is a centimeter to a centimeter and a half every year.

“If you stop that from growing you get a very short trunk, but it also affects the ability of your lungs to grow an expand,” Elliott says. The lungs continue to grow until age 8.

The Ortizes saw an immediate improvement in their son after the surgery.

“Last year he would get tired very easily. This year, he can run and play and have no trouble,” Synthia Ortiz says. A lot of that has to do with how his breathing has improved because there’s more space for his lungs to develop.

He’s not completely over the breathing problem. He has one good lung and one that’s collapsed. A small white connection in Jayden’s throat is there in case he needs a ventilator.

Last year, he used the ventilator a lot. He has not had to use it at all this year. A sleep test will be done soon to determine if Jayden has problems breathing at night. If that goes well, then the connector will be removed.

The X-rays before the rods were implanted show how far Jayden’s head has moved back toward the center. It is still obvious when he walks that his steps are a little off. But now, Jayden can participate in most kindergarten activities and can go to recess if his mother is with him.

Rick Bentley: 559-441-6355, @RickBentley1

How to help

Text KIDSDAY to 41444 to donate in any amount, or go online to

Related stories from Fresno Bee