Q-C teen shows true backbone in Washington DC health discussions

Originally Posted Online: March 14, 2013, 8:33 pm
Last Updated: March 15, 2013, 9:50 am
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By John Marx, jmarx@qconline.com

Fourteen-year-old Mallory Obenauf is whip-smart, owner of a 12 personality on a scale of 10.

She plays the flute, and she is student council president at Davenport's John F. Kennedy Catholic School.She is a first-rate competitive swimmer, dabbles in school theatrical productions, is the editor of the JFK school newspaper and is Chuck Norris-tough.

All the world is Mallory's stage.

Mallory has scoliosis, and by the time she reached age 13, her spine had a 65 percent curvature. Because of that, life for someone so full of vim and vigor was challenging and painful. Breathing, at times, was laborious.

To right this hereditary wrong, Mallory underwent risky spinal-fusion surgery -- a long rod and a series of plates and pins were inserted into her spine -- and endured a recovery period of more than a year. The surgery, performed by Dr. Stuart Weinstein at University of Iowa Hospitals, was rare, painful and loaded with uncertainty.

That was in November 2011.

Today, 16 months later, Mallory, a member of the BPVH Piranas Swim Club, has returned to competitive swimming, and is faster in the water than she was before the surgery. She has joined the Backwater Gamblers water-skiing team and continues to fit 26 hours' worth of involvement into a 24-hour day. At age 14, she is wise way beyond her years.

Two weeks ago, she took Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., in typical Mallory Obenauf fashion, wowing all her came her way.

Selected by Dr. Weinstein and doctors from the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons, Mallory spoke to four members of Congress and U.S. Sens. Tom Harkin and Charles Grassley from Iowa about musculoskeletal research.

As research scientists and doctors were explaining the nuts and bolts of surgeries such as hers, Mallory -- iPad in hand -- gave a pictorial explanation of her surgery, her recovery and her life today. Those on hand said she played the room like a genuine-at-heart, seasoned veteran.

"We were at a crossroads when it came to my presentation,'' said Mallory, whose dad is legendary local radio disc jockey Bill (Michaels) Obenauf. "I didn't just want to sit down and tell them all the good that happened to me. The idea was to show where musculoskeletal science is today, and to get them to think long and hard about continuing to provide federal funding for research.''

At first, Mallory thought she would make her presentation using a hardcover book about her trials and tribulations that she has created to help others with similar problems. But she opted to go the social media route, including real-life explanations.

"I'm her dad, but she wowed them,'' Bill Obenauf said. "Remember, this was on the eve of the sequester, and those legislators were uneasy about money, but they were taken with the way Mallory stepped forward and presented her story. She grabbed their attention verbally and visually. It forced them all to stop, think, ask lots of questions and want to know more.''

Those questions were posed at every turn, especially since millions of dollars in funding are at stake. This is where Mallory shone.

"They weren't just sitting there shaking their heads; they wanted details of everything,'' Mallory said. "They wanted proof, and the pictures gave them that. They wanted a firsthand explanation, and I gave them that. They were nice, but they weren't going to just start handing out money.

"But I really felt great after getting the chance to share my story. I was happy that I had an answer -- and a photo -- for every question.''

With her busy schedule, one would not blame Mallory if her days as a patient advocate now are over. They are not. She and her mother, Donna, are in contact with families across the country, answering questions about Mallory's experience.

"Maybe my surgery will be the one they look back on as the one that helped fix spinal curvatures,'' said Mallory, who plans to attend Pleasant Valley High School in the fall, and hopes someday to have a career in dentistry. "If I can help others, answer some questions and ease some fears, I will. I'm grateful to be asked.''

Columnist John Marx can be reached at (309) 757-8388 or jmarx@qconline.com.


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