Less than three years after scoliosis surgery, Silver Bay's Yoki to ski at state

Josephine "Fiina" Yoki and her daughter, Haley, were enjoying their family sauna in Silver Bay three years ago when Haley bent over to pick up an object."I was like, 'Whoa. Bend over again,' " Fiina Yoki recalled.Haley Yoki had two large humps, o...

Haley Yoki, a senior on the Cook County-Silver Bay girls ski team, will compete in today’s state championship meet at Giants Ridge in Biwabik less than three years after an eight-hour operation to correct scoliosis. Adelle Whitefoot / Lake County News-Chronicle

Josephine “Fiina” Yoki and her daughter, Haley, were enjoying their family sauna in Silver Bay three years ago when Haley bent over to pick up an object.
“I was like, ‘Whoa. Bend over again,’ ” Fiina Yoki recalled.
Haley Yoki had two large humps, one on her upper-left shoulder and one on her lower-right back. She had severe scoliosis, causing her spine to curve into an S. She underwent major surgery to correct her condition, and now, 30 months later, the results are inspiring.
Yoki, a senior captain, will compete today in the Minnesota Alpine ski meet at Giants Ridge in Biwabik as a member of the state-qualifying Cook County-Silver Bay Vikings girls.
“Last year I was a little more nervous, I was a little more attentive to it, thinking if I fell I would hurt my back,” Yoki said. “I don’t even worry about it anymore. It’s definitely amazing.”
Surgery needed
According to the National Scoliosis Foundation, scoliosis affects 2 percent to 3 percent of the population, or about 6 to 9 million Americans. The primary age of onset is 10 to 15 years old, occurring equally among genders, but females are eight times more likely to have it progress to the point where it requires treatment.
Yoki has a history of scoliosis in her family, with it afflicting both her mother and aunt. Despite Fiina’s discovery in the sauna, they waited until after the ski season before getting her checked out. While Haley noticed it was becoming more difficult to sit in class without getting cramps, she was never in great pain.
“I wasn’t too concerned,” Fiina Yoki said. “I was thinking she would just have to get a back brace or maybe some orthotics in her shoe. I didn’t expect them to say she needed surgery. I did not expect it to be as bad as it was. I never expected it to look the way it looked. I was quite shocked.”
X-rays were astonishing. Haley’s spine twisted like a snake. She had a 45-degree curve in her upper spine and a 57-degree curve in her lower spine, past the 50-degree surgery standard. And without surgery, it’d only get worse, in particular because she was still growing.
After doing her due diligence researching the subject, Fiina Yoki said surgery was a “no-brainer” as she didn’t want her daughter crunched up like an accordion when she was older. She tried to calm her daughter on the hour drive from Silver Bay to Duluth, with her husband, Lee, joining them later.

Haley underwent an eight-hour surgery in June 2013 with Dr. David Gordon, an Essentia Health pediatric orthopedic surgeon. Gordon fused 13 vertebrae while inserting two cobalt-chrome rods and titanium screws to hold her spine in place.

“Of all scoliosis, less than 10 percent ever requires any surgery,” Gordon said. “She was obviously a little worried and discouraged when she had the diagnosis made, as it had progressed to the point where we needed to do an operation. It’s a family concern. It’s obviously a big operation with some potential problems that are serious.”
‘Rock star’ returns to full speed
Haley also was missing a set of ribs and a vertebra, abnormalities that often correlate with spinal deformity. She actually grew, from 5-foot-1 to 5-3, after having her spine straightened. She was in great pain after surgery as her muscles cramped up, trying to get back in the position they were before.
“It was pretty rough,” Haley said. “I had a morphine button that I kept wanting to press.”
Despite the pain, she proved to be a quick healer. Almost too quick.
“I had to rein her in, I can tell you that,” Gordon said. “She was really motivated to get back to all her activities. Most of us who do this kind of surgery aren’t thrilled about kids who want to go ski racing. We want them to get back to normal life, for sure, but ski racing isn’t normal for everyone.”
While others stayed in the hospital for a week, Haley went home on the fifth day. Gordon told her that she would feel like she wanted to do stuff but would have to be smart and use restraint. There was a procedure to follow, but this girl only knows one speed.
“She’s a little rock star, really,” Fiina Yoki said.
That summer, while all her friends played outside, Haley spent much of her time in bed or on the couch. She had two sets of school books, one for school and one for home, and friends carried them for her. She took her sophomore year off from volleyball and ski racing but was back competing her junior year.
Fiina Yoki cringed the first time her daughter dove across the volleyball court going for a dig.
“She was diving all over the floor,” Fiina said. “I thought that couldn’t be good for the back, but she was fine. She just popped right back up.”
Risks vs. rewards
Haley has been skiing since she was 2. Her parents and grandparents are ski patrols at Lutsen. Skiing is intertwined with the North Shore, and it’s something so dear to her that she can’t give it up. It’s part of her life.
Gordon understands this, but part of his job is being honest and warning patients of the risks. Because Haley has a spine fusion, she has to live with an increased risk for serious spinal injury. Ski racing is part of weighing the risks vs. the rewards.
“A really aggressive downhill ski run, with a bad collision we could see on TV, with kids doing 60 mph, that could cause a significant injury to her spine,” Gordon said. “Even a bad car accident could do that. Haley knows and understands this, but she can’t live in fear, and we don’t want her to do that. Ultimately, you ask yourself, do you run the red light or not? That’s the way life is. It’s a balance and a compromise.
“I’ve discussed all of this with her and her family, but you’re not going to slow this child down. She’s just a great kid.”
The stage was set at the Section 7 Alpine ski meet last week at Giants Ridge. After the first run, the Vikings were in first place, but coach Charles Lamb fibbed, telling them if it were a football game, they were down by touchdown. He wanted them focused for the second and final run, with the top four skiers factoring into the team results.
The Vikings’ three fastest skiers, Reilly Wahlers, Sela Backstrom and Alyssa Martinson, all had strong second runs. Lamb then went to the starting ramp to see Yoki off, and she was the same old Haley, positive and joking and hiding any nervousness. Then off she went.
“Haley has been a joy to coach,” Lamb said. “Not once, but twice during races in the last five years, a gate has broken her chin bar and slapped her in the lips and face, drawing blood. She was lucky she didn’t lose a tooth or worse. She came into the finish arena in tears, but she finished both those race runs, and that speaks to how tough she is.”
Lamb didn’t rest easy until an assistant coach reported that Haley looked good completing her second run. Yoki’s 24th-place finish sealed the Vikings’ first section victory since 2011 and a trip to state, only the skiers initially didn’t know it. Tension built as the team results were read off, starting from the bottom.
“Our girls had no clue it was coming,” Lamb said. “It was quite a moment when they had not announced our school yet, and then they announced Stillwater as the runner-up. It was priceless. Our girls were still wrapping their heads around what was about to happen. I wish we would have had a video camera on them, as the rest is history.”
History that Yoki was grateful to be a part of.
Yoki has a 3.0 grade-point average and plans to study nursing at Lake Superior College, a field she has already learned more than her share of from her time in the hospital. While she had to give up a year of her life and the things she loves to do, she didn’t have to give it all up.
“Skiing has always been something I’ve enjoyed doing, and I’ll probably do it for life,” Yoki said. “It’s one of the most fun things you can do. It’s a stress reliever, because you get going so fast. There is still a little part of me that wishes I hadn’t missed that year, but to be where I’m at right now, I feel pretty amazing about it. Now, if I’m going through the course and think I’m going to fall, my back is no longer the first thing I think about.”

Major surgery to Haley Yoki's back corrected scoliosis issues show in these X-ray photos. The left image is her back before surgery and the right image is her back after surgery. (Photos courtesy of Essentia Health)

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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