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Marlaina Pate

Of all the chronic conditions that model and health coach Marlaina Pate could have been diagnosed with, it’s ironic it was scoliosis: her relatives own The American Chiropractor magazine and two of her uncles and grandfather are chiropractors. But it was also very helpful: they guided her toward alternative treatments to surgery, and eventually she became a scoliosis advocate with an entire business called Organically Grounded that focuses on scoliosis awareness and wellness.
by Sollis Health

When and how did you learn you had scoliosis?

I first learned I had scoliosis in the fourth grade during a school screening. The nurse ran her finger up and down my spine multiple times and I knew something wasn’t right. She immediately walked me to the front office and had them call my mom to come into the school as if something was wrong and I remember feeling like I was in trouble. When my mom arrived, they explained that they detected a slight curvature in my spine and suggested I see a doctor for treatment. She took me to our pediatrician, who assured us that 10 percent of women in the United States have scoliosis and I’d probably grow out of it. Ironically, my mother’s family are huge in the chiropractic community—they own a publication called “The American Chiropractor,” and two of my uncles as well as my grandfather were practicing chiropractic. We consulted with them and they confirmed that as long as the curve did not increase we shouldn’t be worried. With that in mind, I went on practicing gymnastics and cheerleading and didn’t give it another thought till I was 16. It was then that we discovered my curve had developed immensely.

How did scoliosis affect your teenage years? How did you imagine your future?

It’s affected me significantly, and has truly molded me into the type of person I am today. People don’t understand what telling a young girl they have a “spinal deformity” will do to them, and we need to be more cautious with how we communicate this messaging to young minds. When I was 16 my scoliosis curve escalated to 60 degrees, and it felt like it happened overnight. During my teenage years I grew up in the Republic of Panama with my family and was living in somewhat of a bubble, so I desperately wanted to talk to someone who understood what I was going through. Thanks to my mother’s family, I was blessed to be surrounded by a team of chiropractors who guided me to the best treatment facilities in the USA. I’d attend scoliosis rehabilitation for two-week periods at a time multiple times per year. Even though my mother would come with me, it was extremely depressing and took a lot of my physical and emotional energy. When thinking of my future, I immediately pictured the humpback of Notre Dame. I thought that was going to be me when I was older. Thankfully, after the first two weeks of very intense treatment, my curve had reduced to 40 degrees and I was able to return to Panama with a regimen of at-home exercises, a back brace, and a chair I strapped myself to for 30 minutes, twice a day—it essentially pulled my spine straighter, to help hold the change. Unfortunately, my curve crept back to 60 degrees and thus began my never ending battle with going in and out of rehab to combat my very persistent scoliosis. I remember laying in bed under my covers crying with my laptop, wishing I could talk to someone who was a success story so I knew everything would be okay. I remember frantically pulling out my laptop and searching for people on YouTube who were sharing their stories, but all I could find were people walking me through their surgeries or other depressed souls. I could not find a single person who was living a healthy and pain-free life, surgery-free, and it was extremely upsetting. I wanted more than anything to get better without having to go through surgery, as it wasn’t something me or my family felt comfortable with.

“People don’t understand what telling a young girl they have a ‘spinal deformity’ will do to them, and we need to be more cautious with how we communicate this messaging to young minds.”

What was your emotional journey from diagnosis to acceptance like?

It took years before I accepted it, and even longer before I started talking about it. When I was 17, I started modeling a lot and knew something like this could affect my modeling career, so I kept my diagnosis a secret until I was 23. I worked myself to the point where if you saw me off the street, you’d never know I had scoliosis because I was so diligent with maintaining a good posture and receiving consistent care. I learned to wear my hair long and hide my back, and convinced myself that no one would know. It wasn’t till I was 19 in NY that casting directors started noticing something “wrong” with me and excusing me from call backs. I tried to ignore it, but it affected my mental state immensely because at that point it was my dream to be a model and this diagnosis was ruining that. I ended up moving to Miami to finish my degree and bounced around a few agencies before landing with Caroline Gleason Management. Caroline was the first person in the modeling world I opened up to and told about my condition, because I had to take a break from castings to go back to another intensive rehab. When I returned from my treatment, she mentioned a client made a comment to her about my back. She felt I should start being more open about it, because it wasn’t something I could “hide” at this point. I decided to take her advice and, on National Scoliosis Awareness month, I posted a photo on Instagram of my back. I finally decided I was ready to make a difference and be that positive success story I was searching for many years prior. I remember sitting in my car in a CVS parking lot crying with relief when I saw the influx of support begin to come through. I was so excited to see such an incredible amount of women, young girls, and even moms who had recently-diagnosed daughters reaching out and thanking me for being open about it. It was at that moment I knew I had found my community.

How did you decide to become an advocate?

The moment I posted that photo and started receiving personal messages from others sharing their stories, I knew I wanted to be an advocate for scoliosis. Even with the positive feedback, I still felt uncomfortable with being completely vulnerable on my main account, so I decided to separate my personal page from my wellness/scoliosis page and that’s how @organicallygrounded was born. Through that account I started being open with my audience on my daily scoliosis journey, what worked, and how I kept my body moving and feeling good—which included yoga, pilates, and breathing exercises—all things I had learned from multiple doctors during my days in treatment. I’d also include health and nutrition tips—like how to deal with inflammation and so on, since at that time I was obtaining my nutritionist certificate.

How have you seen the perception of scoliosis change over the years?

Over the past few years, I certainly feel like it’s becoming a more talked about topic, thanks to social media and celebrities like Martha Hunt talking openly about it. I think we’re living in an age where people are encouraged to be vulnerable and share what they’re going through, which is very different from when I was a teenager. It’s a beautiful thing, and I hope we can continue doing so.

“It took years before I accepted it, and even longer before I started talking about it. Finally, on National Scoliosis Awareness month, I posted a photo of my back, and I remember sitting in my car, crying with relief when I saw the influx of support begin to come through. I knew I had found my community.”

What do you wish more people knew about scoliosis and what are some of the biggest obstacles people face?

I think the biggest obstacle (based on personal experience) is self-love and acceptance. It’s really hard to accept you have something that (up to this point in time) cannot be cured or explained and be okay with that. It can mess with your mind and how you view yourself. I think receiving proper treatment is another big one. There are so many alternative treatments than surgery and it’s extremely frustrating to me that insurance companies do not provide preventative care for scoliosis patients, but will cover an invasive surgery. As a patient you should feel you have the option to choose which method of treatment is right for you. Preventative treatment is a huge out-of-pocket cost, and shouldn’t be something that a person needs to stress out about when they’re already suffering from a life-long condition.

What surprised you most of your journey with scoliosis?

The biggest surprise I felt through my journey with scoliosis was that one day my mind just switched and I turned from hating my scoliosis to finding love and acceptance for it, which is something my younger self would have never imagined. I slowly became grateful for the condition I was dealt, because I knew it had happened to me because I could handle it. It also pushed me to become more involved in the health and wellness community, which has become one of my biggest passions.

If there has been a silver lining with having to deal with a chronic illness what would you say it is?

It’s taught me to focus on the positives in life. It’s made me extremely grateful for my body, and has given me a new perspective on the struggles people are going through internally. For so many years, I didn’t talk about what I was going through, but over time it taught me that it’s okay to ask for and receive help from others when you need it.

Words to live by?

You are what you believe.
The views and opinions expressed in this campaign are those of the participants, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sollis Health.
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