From Scoliosis to Kilimanjaro: A Story of Faith

Javi found himself facing a life-threatening scoliosis surgery at age 13 and realized he couldn’t do it alone. He never would have guessed that 15 years later he would be climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Video Transcript

Javi Zubizarreta: Imagine you’re 13. You’ve got braces on your teeth, acne on your skin, and you’re standing in the doctor’s office wearing nothing but your underpants. And there’s a whole panel of doctors and nurses, and your parents are there, and they’re all looking at you.

And they’re whispering to each other, and, they’re pointing at you. And they’re asking you to put your arms out. Stand to the side. Stand to the front. Other side. And back again.

And, in this moment when you’re totally exposed and vulnerable, you can’t help but think, “My God, have you forsaken me?”

I had a cold, and so my mom insisted that if I was going to miss school, I got to go to the doctor. And, he’s got the stethoscope to my back, and he’s listening to my breathing. And he pulls the stethoscope away and says, “Have you ever been checked for scoliosis?” And that was it. I have scoliosis.

The human body has a basic symmetry. You have a nose lined up with your belly button and your two shoulders on either side. It’s pretty symmetrical. With scoliosis, that all starts to shift. About a month later, I got a back brace. It was miserable. Utterly miserable. So, you can imagine being 13 and having your mom in the morning, come to you and tighten up this body brace, and being so angry with her. With this brace. With everything. It sucked.

But, what was even worse was that in the first month of wearing this brace, I’d get up in the morning and I’d look at myself in the mirror. And, I’d see my body. My shoulders were starting to shift until eventually, my nose lined up with my right shoulder, lined up with my belly button. Day after day, I could see my body become utterly deformed. It became monstrous, before my very eyes.

It felt like an attack.

So, we finally found a doctor who we really trusted and he took one look at my X-ray and he said, “We have to operate. They’re going to cut you open. Pull apart your muscles. Shave down your vertebrae. And then, drill in titanium screws and rods. Slowly, slowly taking your spine and straightening it out one tighten of the screw after the other. I have had patients, they’ve been paralyzed by it.”

All of that anger. All of that frustration. All of that, that’s just pent up inside of me suddenly, gave way to, “Oh my gosh. I’m about to have surgery.” And in the moment that that fear entered my body, something else came to light. Which was, I need to stop being angry with God. I need Him. Because, I have no idea how I can possibly get through this.

I remember the mask being lowered onto me, and then that was it.

What I awoke to was the sound of the Our Father. And the sound of the Hail Mary. The sound of the Glory Be. The prayers that we had always said as a family at night, now being prayed over me by my whole family. And, as painful as it was, hearing that and hearing it from those people, I thought to myself, “I can do this.”

And I remember when the day came that I had to take my first step out of the bed. And I had been warned it was going to be painful. And they slowly roll me onto my side. And they slowly raise me up out of the bed. And they said, “Okay. Put your foot on the floor.” It was primal, my prayer. There was no thought to it. There was no beauty to it. It was just, “God help me. God just be here. Be here, be here please.” And putting my foot on the floor and feeling that cold tile beneath it.

It felt like, ‘I am on top of the world.’ So, if you had told me or my mother that I would one day climb to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. We would have laughed you out of the room. I remember starting the trek and I would say long prayers and maybe, pray the rosary as I’m walking. But by the end it was just purely left foot, right foot. Left foot, right foot. That was my prayer to God.

I realize in that moment, no matter the heights that I reach, my ultimate strength is through God within me. And without that, I’m nothing.

I still look at myself in the mirror each day, and there’s still parts of me that stick out and jut out in odd places. I still have a scar down my back.

That 13 year-old did so much and gained so much from God that he could do anything now.

Be in the know with Grotto