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Plum volleyball duo overcomes condition to excel

| Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Senior Michelle Theiss and sophomore Maddie Gestrich have bonded on and off the court through their collective battles with scoliosis.
Lillian DeDomenic | For The Plum Advance Leader
Senior Michelle Theiss and sophomore Maddie Gestrich have bonded on and off the court through their collective battles with scoliosis.
Senior Michelle Theiss and sophomore Maddie Gestrich have bonded on and off the court through their collective battles with scoliosis.
Michael Love | Plum Advance Leader
Senior Michelle Theiss and sophomore Maddie Gestrich have bonded on and off the court through their collective battles with scoliosis.

Maddie Gestrich was 9 when she first learned she had scoliosis.

The condition, in which a person's spine is curved from side-to-side, was detected during a routine doctor visit.

The diagnosis left Maddie's parents, Steve and Kristen Gestrich of Plum, searching for information. They soon contacted family friends Bob and Tammy Theiss, whose daughter, Michelle, also had scoliosis.

“We've known the Theisses for years,” Kristen said. “That was one of the first calls we made.”

Michelle, two years older than Maddie, had also been diagnosed with scoliosis during a routine check-up when she was 9. The girls knew each other through their families' connections in sports and school.

“I just wanted to be there for Maddie as much as I could,” Michelle said. “I told her, ‘I was able to do it. So can you.'”

Maddie was thrilled to have Michelle's support and encouragement.

“It was nice to have her there,” Maddie said. “She was able to explain to me what to expect and how to handle it.”

Years later, the two remain close, supportive friends. And now they're teammates, too.

Both Maddie and Michelle are starters for Plum's girls volleyball team, which improved to 5-3 in Section 4-AAA play after a victory over McKeesport on Sept. 26.

Michelle is a senior outside hitter, and Maddie, a sophomore, is one of the team's starting setters.

“They both ended up playing varsity volleyball together, so it's come full circle for them,” Kristen Gestrich said. “They've both demonstrated such strength and character.”

According to statistics from the Scoliosis Research Society, 10 percent of the adolescent population has some degree of scoliosis, though only 2 to 3 percent require medical attention. There is no medication to treat it and no way to prevent the onset of the condition.

Symptoms often include muscle fatigue and pain as well as joint problems.

One way of measuring the severity of scoliosis is the degree of the curves in a person's spine, most commonly in the 20- to 40-degree range. The condition can worsen over time, especially with girls experiencing growth spurts during their teenage years.

Those with curves at the 40 to 50 degree level may have to opt for surgery, which involves using metallic implants and a bone graft to correct some of the spine's curvature and hold it in the correct position.

Taylor Williams, a neighborhood friend and classmate of Maddie's who had corrective surgery for scoliosis, has been able to remain active in competitive cheerleading and track.

Michelle Theiss believes her scoliosis condition is genetic. Her grandmother, an aunt and two cousins have it.

Other causes can be neuromuscular (abnormalities in muscles or nerves) or degenerative (caused by traumatic illness or injury). Those for whom there is no known cause, like Maddie Gestrich, fall into the idiopathic category, which accounts for 80 to 85 percent of scoliosis sufferers.

Both Maddie and Michelle had to wear a back brace from the time they were sixth graders until they were in ninth grade.

The device, called the Boston brace, is a rigid plastic support that covers the area from the arm pit to just above the hip.

The brace had to be worn for 15 to 18 hours a day.

“Maddie took it off only when she was playing sports,” Kristen Gestrich said. “It was a challenge from the social aspect. We did our best to find her clothes that were comfortable and oversized so it wasn't as noticeable.

“It became part of her daily routine, but it didn't keep her from working toward her goals in sports and school.”

Part of Maddie's treatment plan includes regular visits to a chiropractor and occasional doctor appointments to keep track of the progress of her scoliosis. She received a battery-operated muscle stimulator from her chiropractor, which she brings to games to help alleviate the muscle spasms which often flair up during physical activity.

Michelle has a yearly check-up with her doctor to evaluate the condition of her spine.

“The doctors can't guarantee you anything,” she said. “It can get worse as you get older. Your hips can get uneven, or one of your legs can become longer than the other. Surgery is always an option, but not right now.”

Maddie and Michelle serve as statisticians for Plum's boys volleyball team, and the extra time spent together has made them even closer.

“We have Little Sisters for our Senior Night for volleyball, and I selected Maddie as one of my Little Sisters,” Michelle said. “I honestly think of her as my little sister. We have a very special bond.”

Neither Maddie nor Michelle is limited by their medical condition on the volleyball court.

“When you're playing, it doesn't really affect you as much as people might expect,” Maddie said.

Both girls are filling key roles for first-year Plum coach Mike Larko Jr.

“Michelle is very versatile, and she's a great team player and a joy to coach,” Larko said. “She's a very smart player, and she plays a very smart game.”

Larko said Gestrich continues to improve in her job as one of the team's setters, helping quarterback the Lady Mustangs' offense by setting up her teammates.

“It's a lot of responsibility, especially for a sophomore, but she's done a good job of stepping up,” Larko said. “She works hard day-in and day-out.”

Maddie and Michelle haven't let scoliosis keep them from accomplishing their goals in sports, which Larko says has been an inspiration to the entire team.

“They're playing varsity volleyball, which is impressive,” he said. “They've come a long way. It's definitely affected them, but they're strong girls, mentally and physically.”

Plum continues its drive for a WPIAL playoff spot Thursday at Penn Hills at 7:30 p.m. The Mustangs were slated to host section foe Shaler on Tuesday. The match was to conclude past the deadline for this week's edition.

Dave Schrecengost is a freelance writer.

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