Skip to main content

Clubs reach across the Atlantic to help girl

Megan Sadler dreams of becoming a competitive gymnast one day. But for the 10-year-old from the Welsh coastal town of Milford Haven, those ambitions have seemed a long way off.

“I love gymnastics,” she says. “I’d like to be able to do a back handspring, but it’s hard at the moment. I want to do competitions and win medals, and one day I would like to be a gym coach.”

Megan suffers from severe scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, which meant she had to wear a restrictive body brace for up to 23 hours a day. “I don’t like my brace, especially when it is tight,” she said earlier this year. “It’s uncomfortable.”

Megan meets with Dr. Steven Hwang, who performed the surgery; an X-ray shows the curvature of her spine before the procedure.

Dave Haradon

Megan’s story inspired a partnership between Rotary clubs on both sides of the Atlantic.

The traditional treatment for a case like hers would involve surgeries to insert rods in her spine. After she stops growing, doctors would then fuse her spine, severely limiting her flexibility. 

The Shriners Hospital for Children-Philadelphia is known worldwide as a pioneer for an innovative surgical procedure called vertebral body tethering (VBT). In this procedure, screws are placed in each vertebra and connected to a flexible cord that holds the spine in a straighter alignment, somewhat like the wire on dental braces. This allows the spine to correct as the patient grows. 

The surgery enables patients to maintain flexibility and lessens the chance of needing multiple surgeries. Once the curvature is beyond 70 degrees, however, the VBT surgery is not an option. 

Shriners offered to perform the operation and treatment free of charge, but there were still major costs for flights and accommodations. And Megan, whose spine was curved more than 60 degrees, first needed to undergo tests at Shriners to determine whether she was a good candidate for the surgery.

The Rotary Club of Milford Haven learned of the family’s plight and sprang into action, initially raising about $1,300 through a special concert. This was further boosted by a fundraising effort by Rotarians in Wales. Social media posts drew wider support.

Doug Klepfer, from left, Helena Tucker, Paul Quintavalla, Julianna Blazey, and Cynthia Rugart were part of the welcoming committee that met Megan Sadler and her family at the Philadelphia airport. Megan got celebrity treatment, with a local television news crew covering her arrival.

Courtesy of Rotary District 7450

More than $9,000 was raised to help Megan’s family travel to the United States for the initial tests. This included nearly $2,000 from the Milford Haven Gymnastics Club, where Megan is a member.

Just before the Sadlers traveled to Philadelphia in February for tests, Steve Jenkins, then governor of District 1150 (Wales), contacted Dave Haradon, his counterpart in District 7450 in Pennsylvania, to ask whether Rotarians there could support the family when they arrived.  

The response was immediate, with the two district governors joined by Rotarians Mike Peake from Milford Haven and Ted Trevorrow from the Rotary Club of Longwood in Chester County, Penn., to organize the effort.

When the Sadler family arrived at Philadelphia International Airport in February, 30 Rotarians were waiting with flags and welcome signs, carrying practical gifts including food, toys, and a smartphone loaded with $200 in credit. 

The Philadelphia Rotarians organized transport from the airport and to the hospital for Megan’s consultation.

“It was so overwhelming, they were absolutely brilliant,” recalls Megan’s mother, Laura. “We couldn’t thank the Rotarians enough because they did everything possible to take care of us. It was lovely.”

The story struck a chord with Rotarians around the globe. Then-RI President John F. Germ took a personal interest in Megan’s story. “This is a true sign of Rotary serving humanity,” he said at the time. Eve Conway, then president of Rotary International in Great Britain and Ireland, also wished Megan well with her treatment. 

With the tests completed, thoughts turned to the life-changing operation in May. A fresh round of fundraising and cooperation by Rotarians raised additional funds, bringing the total to about $26,000. 

What lay ahead was a grueling six-hour operation during which Megan’s lungs would be deflated and some of her ribs removed to allow surgeons to work on her spine.

“I’m excited about the operation,” she said in the spring after returning home between the consultation and the procedure. “The tests were a bit scary, and I didn’t like having to breathe into a machine. But I want to go to America because I want to get my life back.”

In late May, the family returned to Shriners for Megan to have the operation and then recuperate in Philadelphia before flying back to the UK in late June.

Trevorrow and his Rotary team were once again out in force to support the Sadlers through their monthlong stay.

“Everything went fine, and Megan has now grown 4½ inches,” says her father, Phil. “The surgery went really well, better than they expected, and they have reduced the curvature of the spine to 40 degrees. As Megan grows, the curvature will become even less severe.”

Phil and Laura are grateful for the generosity of Rotarians on both sides of the Atlantic who made the surgery possible, as well as the businesses that contributed. 

“We didn’t expect anything – maybe that they would meet us at the airport,” says Phil. “But everyone has been so kind and helpful.”

Megan is steadily gaining fitness at home with her family. She will return to Philadelphia in December for the first of a series of semiannual checks.

The fundraising will continue – not only for Megan, but also for the Shriners Hospital and for other children in the UK who might need financial support to make the trip to Philadelphia for treatment.

“The surgery is going to change Megan’s quality of life completely,” says Laura. “It means that she will only have to wear a brace at night rather than for 23 hours a day. It will give her some normality for a few years as she grows, and we hope it will allow her to continue with her gymnastics.” –Dave King

• Read more stories from The Rotarian