ELIZABETHTOWN, Ky. (KT) – Gracie Rager already has admirers in her parents and younger siblings, who watched as she courageously and successfully endured three back surgeries in three weeks to help straighten her back.
Now she wants to be an inspiration to others who faced what she faced.
The 11-year-old daughter of Kenny and Taran Rager was diagnosed with scoliosis three years ago. The surgery couldn’t come at the time of diagnosis because her spine was still growing. Her badly-curved spine was almost an s-shape, being 91 degrees at the top and 85 degrees at the bottom, according to her mother. She wore a back brace for three years for some corrective action, but surgery was a certainty. Everybody knew it even though Gracie didn’t like to talk about it.
Kenny said it was during a routine visit to the pediatrician when she was 8 that the scoliosis was found. “Once the doctor showed us, the curtain was unveiled. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. As time went on, the curve kept getting worse.”
While boys and girls are about as likely to have mild scoliosis, girls are more than seven times as likely to have their spinal curves progress to moderate or severe scoliosis and require treatment, according to spine-health.com.
With her spine fully developed and still curved, it was time for the surgery. Without the surgery, it would eventually start affecting her lungs and other organs, Taran said. So there was no decision to have or not have the surgery. Gracie was not only brave but an inspiration to doctors, nurses and anyone who followed the family’s public journey via Facebook. She was a social media darling.
“It was harder leading up to the surgery than the actual surgery,” Kenny said. They made posts on Facebook each step of the way, and the social media journaling turned out to be therapeutic for everyone, including Gracie who enjoyed looking at words of encouragement and seeing how many were holding her up in prayer.
You could have even followed some of Gracie’s journey on YouTube where she made videos about what was happening along with some tricks. “I wanted to let other kids know they needed to be calm because, in the end, you’ll feel a lot better.”
Gracie stared down the multiple surgeries with a strong inner boldness that comes straight from heaven. She said the unknown was the hardest. “I didn’t know what they were going to do and what it was going to be like. It was hard. The prayers and prayers of so many people made it easier for me.”
One of her doctors came into her hospital room smiling after she had made a video. Another patient of his had watched the video. “The doctor came in laughing, saying he saw one of her videos,” Taran said. “It got to him within 24 hours.”
Her parents said they were thankful for the overwhelming support they experienced during her three-week hospital stay that included a major surgery each week. The multiple prayers and words of encouragement sustained them, said Kenny, who is a church evangelism associate on the evangelism team of the Kentucky Baptist Convention. While co-workers from the KBC reached out to them, he said so did many other Kentucky Baptists whom they had known through 15 years of ministry.
“We had a strong support network around us the entire time,” he said. “Our Kentucky Baptist family, not just the convention. Definitely the (KBC) staff but more than that. We had people all over praying for her. It was absolutely amazing. We were just so humbled by that.”
Kenny attributes those prayers to giving his daughter a successful stay in the hospital with little trauma. Considering what had to be done in the surgery, prayer was certainly a factor. She had a metal halo device placed on her head after the first surgery with a pulley that carried 36 pounds. She had one rib and five discs in her back removed and had two steel rods fused to her spine.
He said his daughter handled it without a tear. Mom and Dad, meanwhile, used those prayers of comfort as a benefit to them with their oldest child going through such suffering. The hospital stay itself was exhausting, Taran said. “Nehemiah (her youngest) was born the same time Kenny was going back to school for his doctorate. This was more exhausting,” she said.
Taran said Gracie did cry once but not from the surgery. She cried on the day they discharged her because they didn’t do it fast enough.
State Rep. Jim DuPlessis sent a citation of bravery from the House of Representatives to the Rager house in honor of Gracie enduring three surgeries in three weeks. He recognized her “tenacity and determination.”
Like Gracie, her parents want to be a help and support for other parents who have a child going through surgeries like Gracie's. They want to pay forward what they experienced from the prayers to understanding the next step in a grueling process from those who had already been through it. Taking out some of the mystery was crucial.
Some of those people for the Ragers were Tim and Becky Harris, whose daughter Emily went through the procedure about 10 years ago. Becky works with Kenny at the KBC and was able to give him an idea of what was next and encouragement – Emily is 26 years old and doing well.
“Becky was so nice to us,” Kenny said. “She and Tim walked us through it. The information they gave us was so useful.”
Harris said she tried to prepare the Ragers for what was going to happen, which makes a difference. “We didn’t have anyone tell us who had been through it as a parent,” she said. “It’s difficult to watch as a parent. I can remember praying, ‘Lord, let me have the surgery.’ The doctors only tell you so much.”
She said her daughter’s body cavity was depressing. She had 11 vertebrae fused.
During her hospital stay, Gracie slept a lot, her mother said, but she also created YouTube videos, chatted with family on social media, worked on some crafts and drew pictures. She is home now and back on her feet. She has even tackled walking up the stairs to her bedroom.
She is a fifth-grade student at GC Burkhead Elementary and looks forward to being with friends again. For the rest of the school year, though, she will be virtual as she continues to heal. Gracie will be limited with some activities, including a trampoline and contact sports. But her prognosis is good in the long term.
Her siblings – Hope, Joy and Nehemiah – are glad to have their sister back home with them. They couldn’t visit her in the hospital because of COVID-19 but they did wave to the window and create some sidewalk art for her.
Kenny and Taran were the only ones allowed in the room with her. Kenny, a highly energetic and evangelistic person, found gospel conversations with doctors and nurses in Gracie’s room and with the pizza delivery man whom he met in the hospital parking garage.
“We would bargain with each other about who would get to go get lunch,” Taran said. “The thing with Kenny, it would take him an hour. He picked up a pizza in the parking lot and led somebody to the Lord. Every person he came in contact with got a tract. He was telling everybody about Jesus.”
The Ragers said they were thankful for Gracie, the doctors, the many friends who prayed and the family and life God had given them.
“Like any trial in life, we want to use it to help people,” Taran said.