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Building my backbone: How I turned my scoliosis struggles into my strengths in law school

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Xrays
X-ray scans of Alyssa Scarpulla's back (illustration)

Navigating through 1L year is no easy feat. It is an experience unlike any other that challenges you not only mentally, but also emotionally and physically. My journey through 1L year was notably different—I was faced with the decision of having to undergo a severe spinal procedure.

As stated by the National Scoliosis Foundation, scoliosis is an abnormal curvature of the spine and can take on many different shapes and forms. To understand the rarity of scoliosis, only 2-3 percent of the population in the United States (roughly six to nine million people) are affected by scoliosis, and approximately a mere .4 percent will need to undergo surgery to correct it.  

When I was sixteen years old, I underwent a full spinal fusion surgery to repair my scoliosis. The curve in my spine resembled an S-shape and ultimately resulted in an eight-hour-long operation, with two titanium rods and 21 screws inserted into my spine.

Fast forward eight years later and into my 1L year. I started to face extreme difficulties due to the hardware in my spine.

As any law student knows, you seem to spend your whole life sitting — whether it’s in lengthy classes and lectures, or studying at home or in the library. The pain I started to experience was nearly constant, and it worsened while I was sitting down. As if learning the Rule of Perpetuities and Erie Doctrine wasn’t enough on its own, having consistent excruciating back pain made it all seem nearly unbearable.

My S-truggle with scoliosis has driven me to work even harder and has taught me so much about my S-trengths

In law school, I was fortunate enough to have found a group of amazing, intelligent, and highly supportive friends who helped me remain positive through it all. I still kept going through 1L year, as I was not going to let anything get in the way of my dreams. To help “cushion” the rest of my way through my first year, I would bring a small pillow with me everywhere I went. Doing this helped me get my work done and sit through class more “comfortably.”

After the most challenging academic year of my life, I had to face yet another trial as I underwent my second spinal surgery. This time, everything that was placed into my back when I was 16 was removed – all 21 screws and the two rods were taken out from my spine.

It was tough to sit and recover for an entire summer while I knew all of my friends took on internships. I started to feel as if I was falling behind. As my temporary summertime sadness passed me by, a realization dawned on me—one that I learned throughout my first year in law school. On the surface, it’s quite simple, but it’s something we all must face at some point or another: you should never compare yourself to others. I realized that I shouldn’t feel behind. I took the summer to take care of myself, so I could continue to keep pushing toward the greatness that I want to achieve in my life.

As I look “back” on it all now, I believe my spine was shaped into an S for a deeper reason. My S-truggle with scoliosis has driven me to work even harder and has taught me so much about my S-trengths. Per my request, my surgeon let me keep one of the twenty-one screws that were removed from my spine. Today, I keep that screw on my desk where I do a majority of my work. Every day, I am constantly reminded that although law school is a struggle, it is no match for the strength I have acquired from my experience with scoliosis. It is no match for the determination that I have found to continue pursuing my dream of graduating from law school and passing the Bar Exam.

My experience of battling with scoliosis throughout law school has taught me that I am incredibly proud of where I’ve been, and even prouder of where I am going.

DISCLAIMER: I share my story in hopes of inspiring other law students—who are stronger than the struggles that they face throughout the course of their law school career.

Alyssa Scarpulla Alyssa Scarpulla was born and raised in Rochester, New York. She moved to Boston in 2017 to pursue her dreams of attending law school. She is currently a 2L at New England Law | Boston with an interest in business/corporate law.