A brave Belper student has achieved top GCSE results despite undergoing a life-changing operation just weeks before her exams were due to start.
Rebecca Phelan was one of the top performers at Saint Benedict Catholic Voluntary Academy in Derby, achieving seven grade 9s and three grade 8s.
She said: “Some of the results came as a complete surprise and it doesn’t feel real. I still don’t feel like I actually took my GCSEs, I don’t think it’s all sunk in yet.”
Surgeons performed a spinal fusion to Rebecca’s severely curved spine, which was a result of scoliosis, and inserted two long titanium rods and 19 metal screws in her back in order to straighten it.
The gruelling eight-hour surgery took place in January and as a result the 16-year-old could not return to school until March when she went back part-time.
Rebecca based her Art coursework on what she had learnt about neurological messages, which travel from the brain to the spine, and is keen to study neuroscience at university after being inspired by her own experience.
The teenager was originally diagnosed with scoliosis in 2017 after her swimming coach noticed that something was wrong with her back.
She said: “It was a really long-winded way of finding out. I used to swim and we would do land training in the gym. One day I was stretching and one of the coaches said there was something wrong with my shoulder. My back was humped on one side but I didn’t actually mention it to my mum until two weeks later.
“We went to our GP and they put me on vitamin D tablets because they thought I might be deficient. However, we went back to the GP and they referred me to hospital. I had an x-ray and I was told I had scoliosis and that I would probably need surgery.
“I was told my condition was quite severe. Anything over a 40-degree curve is considered quite serious and one of my curves at that point was 73 degrees and it actually ended up at 89 degrees so it was almost a right angle.
“I was referred to the Queen’s Medical Centre in Nottingham as that’s one of the best places to go for scoliosis surgeries.
"Originally I hoped my surgery would be after Year 10, in the summer of 2018, so I would be fine for GCSEs.
"For me, the surgery wasn’t classed as critical but still very necessary and emergency cases always took priority due to the length of time that I needed a high dependency bed.
She underwent surgery on January 22 this year. They had to open up her back, fuse the spine and insert two rods and 19 screws.
During the operation they also placed small electrodes on her skull and sent electrical impulses to her hands and feet down her spinal cord to check that there was no neurological damage. As the screws are inserted fractions of millimetres from the spinal cord there is a risk of paralysis.
She added: “I was in hospital for one week and within 24 hours of the surgery I was standing upright and by day two I’d taken my first steps. For the first few days I was on a very high dose of painkillers but this was reduced by the time I was discharged."
Rebecca was full-time in Year 11 up until Christmas but from January until March this year was off school.
She added: "My Art exam coursework started in January but after the operation I couldn’t do any work for three weeks in part due to the painkillers which meant that I couldn’t focus and if I did anything for too long I got a lot of pain in my ribs.
"I started to do some school work online about four weeks after the operation and then two weeks later I went back to school on a phased return, which was a couple of mornings a week.
“It was hard as I was trying to catch up with all of the work I’d missed and I still needed to lie down a lot. I couldn’t do my Art coursework lying down.
"The actual Art exam is over 10-hours but I was allowed to do mine over three days.
"I did it in a smaller room so that if I needed to stand up then I could and my time would be paused until I sat back down. I’ve actually only been at school for five full weeks since January this year.
“I will have an annual check-up and none of the metal will need replacing or removing. I have been told that I don’t need to worry if I go through security at an airport as the rods and screws are titanium so shouldn’t set off any alarms!”
Rebecca said that one of the other effects of the surgery was that she grew taller as a result.
She said: “I noticed that my eye-line was different as I grew by about an inch. Everything takes about a year to fully fuse in place and I can feel it if I move quite quickly. I can feel that my back is quite tight sometimes where the rods are but generally I can do the things that I was doing before the surgery. I’m very grateful for the work of the surgical team at QMC and for the ward staff and physiotherapists aiding my recovery.”
Rebecca is planning on staying on at Saint Benedict Sixth Form to study Biology, Chemistry and Maths.
Kevin Gritton, headteacher, said: “We would like to congratulate all of our students on another record-breaking set of GCSE results at Saint Benedict. We are particularly thrilled for Rebecca. Her achievement is incredible, especially in light of what she’s been through.”