Doctors regularly achieve miraculous feats, from removing brain tumors to fixing the curve in a teenager’s spine. Yet there’s only so much they can do to understand the illness you’re facing—and that lack of empathy can be isolating when you’re worried you may never feel normal again.
That’s why pediatric orthopedic surgeon Jaren Riley of Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children decided to put himself in his scoliosis patients’ shoes—or rather, their braces. Scoliosis occurs when the spine curves left or right instead of aligning up the middle of your back (which takes place most frequently during puberty) and sometimes requires a back brace to shift the vertebrae back into place.
Riley wore that brace for a week, 18 hours at a time, to replicate the experience that many of his patients endure when they first put on the apparatus. Throughout the process, he kept a journal to document his observations and recorded several Facebook Live videos to share the experience—and gather advice from families whose children had gone through the process themselves. “It really hit home for me how mentally strong these kids are,” he says. “And now that I’ve done it, there are little tips and tricks that I can pass along.” Here are his top five recommendations:
Where to sit: Bean bag chairs
“One of the struggles I had was that I like to sit around with my family and read books or watch movies,” Riley says. “But you can’t recline or else the bottom of the brace pinches your rear end.” Bean bags, though, conform to your body, so you can sit without the experience being a pain in the butt (literally).
What to wear: Tight, moisture-wicking clothing
Riley works with a lot of teenage girls (scoliosis is slightly more prevalent in females than males), who tend to wear form-fitting shirts and pants. That’s an advantage, since clothing that wrinkles under the brace can cause skin problems. Whether they’re into leggings or not, though, apparel that eschews sweat instead of attracting it is crucial.
What to clean it with: Listerine
Try to imagine how most teenagers smell—and then imagine the stank if their perspiration is trapped under a plastic brace. Translation: The device needs some serious cleaning every so often. One family encouraged Riley to try Listerine; its antibacterial properties mean it does double duty to improve sensation and smell.
How to sleep: On your side
The brace digs into your skin if you’re on your stomach, so side sleeping is the best strategy—but if that’s not your typical position, it’ll likely take a while to get used to. For instance, Riley thought he was slumbering soundly the first night he wore the brace, but his wife had surprising news for him: He snored loudly while on his back and actually took the brace off—still fast asleep—at one point in the night.
What he couldn’t learn: What it’s like to be a teenage girl with a brace
As a 40-year-old man, Riley couldn’t recreate the look of a girl going through puberty. “One of the comments after one of my videos on Facebook came from a mother who said the brace made her daughter’s breasts stand out a bit more or be more noticeable,” he says. “All I could do was write back to her, and say, ‘You’re right—I don’t know what it’s like, so I have to rely on you to tell me. Did you change the way she dressed? Did she talk to you and her dad to find a way to get through it? At first, I felt bad about that, but really, it’s getting more people talking, and I can pass their answers along to those girls who ask me next.”