SIUH LAUNCHES AN INNOVATIVE AND COMPREHENSIVE PROGRAM FOR THE TREATMENT OF SCOLIOSIS

BY JESSICA JONES GORMAN PHOTOS © AMESSÉ PHOTOGRAPHY

It’s Wednesday in the department of pediatric orthopedics at Staten Island University Hospital, and Dr. Qusai Hammouri is touring with a small group of adolescents who are prepping for spinal fusion surgery. The meeting is personal, informational, and encouraging. But Dr. Hammouri (affectionately known to his young patients as “Dr. Q”), also tries to keep these pre surgical experiences a little “wacky.”

“Having surgery at that age is monumental for these patients,” Dr. Hammouri noted. “But we found if we are completely upfront, tell them everything they need to know, walk them through the rooms where their procedure will actually take place, and introduce them to patients who just had this surgery two days prior, they are less anxious about this major event. No surgery is without pain or discomfort, but if we treat it with a little whimsy make it both informational and lighthearted they will be confident and ready when it comes time for their own surgery day.”

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Dubbed “Wacky Wednesday,” the pre surgical meet and greet is just a small part of a new multi-disciplinary program that was launched at SIUH this past summer, offering patients with idiopathic scoliosis a truly comprehensive approach to care. On the Wednesday prior to their scheduled surgery, children receive the necessary pre op testing and also get to tour rooms where they’ll receive anesthesia and x rays. They also have the opportunity to meet patients recovering from the same surgery, getting a first hand account of what they should be prepared for. They even leave with a little swag: shirts custom made by SIUH staffer, Donna Vigorito (on the back there’s an image of a perfectly corrected spine; on the front it reads “STRAIGHT outta SIUH.”

“It was so important for us to create an environment where the child feels comfortable,” Dr. Hammouri said. “We have this amazing team of physicians and nurses who are not only at the top of their game medically, but share this deep compassion for their patients. This is extremely important when you are working with young adults.”

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Spinal fusion surgery, which is a treatment for the most severe cases of scoliosis, is just one modality of treatment within Dr. Hammouri’s department.

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“Surgery is reserved for the most complex and challenging cases of spinal deformities,” Dr. Hammouri said. “Scoliosis, which is a lateral curvature of the spine, is very common, but the majority of patients only have it in a mild form. Only one to two percent of patients will need surgery, which involves cutting the bones around the spinal cord and carving the spine to reshape it so that it is not compressed into the heart and lungs. In many cases, we wait and monitor their growth, and can even interfere with a brace.”

And because wearing a brace can trigger an emotional response from teenagers, Dr. Hammouri fitted himself for one so that he could better understand the experience.

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“We as doctors often give instructions to patients that we have never tried ourselves. At some point, I realized I’d never had a cast in my life, and even though I was prescribing these braces, had never used one,” he said. “That’s why I had a brace made for myself. I cannot tell you how much sympathy I now have for my patients. I ask them to wear the brace for 23 hours a day; it was difficult for me to stay in it for 10 minutes. I am now able to offer tips, advice, and a little commiseration.”

Dr. Hammouri, who grew up in Jordan, was inspired by his uncle to pursue a career in surgery.
“My uncle was a spine surgeon, and I distinctly remember him treating other children, wondering in my own innocence why these young patients needed these cruel surgeries that opened them up and broke their bones,” he said. “But as I got older, I understood that these procedures were necessary to fix them…and decided I wanted to be the person that could help them heal.”

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After completing his medical education in Jordan, Dr. Hammouri applied to the orthopedic residency program at Yale University in which he participated for five years.

“It was a transformative experience,” he noted. “There I learned to practice medicine with an emphasis on curing the soul, alleviating more than just physical pain,” adding that he went on to complete a fellowship in spinal deformity at NYU.

“That was also a very profound experience,” he said. “To go from general surgery learning how to open and close the body to thinking of yourself as a sculptor, contouring bones to fit in a pattern that fixes their deformity…that was a higher order of thinking. But I loved the complexity of it because it requires a true understanding of the three dimensional nature of the spine.”

Dr. Hammouri completed another fellowship in pediatric orthopedics at Columbia University before taking a position at SIUH in 2013.

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“It had been a long while since someone had practiced pediatric orthopedics here,” he said. “There were no specialists for pediatric spine, so I welcomed the opportunity to practice in a community where I could have a significant impact.”

Recruited as director of pediatric orthopedics and tasked with launching the department, the doctor recalled the challenges in building such a division from the ground up.

“The hospital already has a solid adult orthopedic program, so the idea was to establish a department that would focus solely on children,” Dr. Hammouri noted.

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“Injuries, bone disorders, and spinal deformities all needed pediatric attention.”

The department began to thrive immediately, thanks to referrals from primary care physicians and sheer demand.

“We handle a lot of pediatric sports injuries here, especially since the borough has a strong sports focus,” said Dr. Hammouri. “Injured elbows, shoulders, knees, and ankles are within our specialty. We also see a decent amount of fractures that can be treated with some kind of immobilization, basically allowing time for the bone to heal,” explaining further that in those cases, the focus is on earning patients’ trust.

“So many are young and scared; they’ve just had a traumatic event and have probably been waiting in the ER,” Dr. Hammouri said. “My job is to calm them down, let them know I can help them, and give them a little authority let them choose a cast with hearts and stripes or sparkle, so that they have something to be excited about.”

For Dr. Hammouri, it’s the most fulfilling part of his job.

“I love working with children,” he said. “Healing a child has always been the most incredibly rewarding part of this job, but now being able to perform every stage here from pre op to post op that is an amazing development for Staten Island parents. There is so much innovation and ability here at SIUH, and we are only going to build upon that innovation in the years to come.”

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Pediatric Surgical Specialists at Seaview Avenue
Cohen Children’s Northwell Health / Staten Island University Hospital
378 Seaview Ave., Lower Level, Staten Island, NY 10305
718.226.4980 / northwell.edu/siuh