Courtney Paige Nelson dreamed of becoming a model when she was a girl. At the age of 10, she developed scoliosis. Her doctor said to wait and watch.
Around the age of 13, Courtney grew 6 1/2 inches in one year. The rapid growth spurt progressed her disease so severely, it gave her a pronounced hump, a swayback and a spine that was so twisted it pushed out her ribs and pressed on her lungs. Courtney, who attended Aragon High School in San Mateo, also suffered at school. Self-conscious about her appearance, she started wearing baggy sweatshirts three sizes too big to hide her kyphotic hump, but classmates still ridiculed her.
The severity of her illness now necessitated surgery. A Shriner connected the family with Shriners Hospitals for Children, and Courtney came to Sacramento for treatment. “It didn’t feel like a hospital when I walked in there,” Courtney says. “It was comforting.”
At 15, Courtney had the vertebrae in her spine fused in about a dozen places. The surgeons removed bone from her right hip and fashioned it into one solid backbone. She contracted pneumonia during her month-long stay. It was a difficult time but she attributes her recovery in part to the nurses who cared for her.
“The hospital makes sure that every kid there is as comfortable and happy as possible,” she says.
With a scar running down her spine and a keloid on her hip, Courtney gave up her modeling dreams. But at the age of 21, she was discovered in San Francisco. For four years, she struggled against the perception that being beautiful means looking flawless; her scars lost her jobs. That began changing when a casting agent for America’s Next Top Model found her on Instagram.
Last year Courtney filmed cycle 23 of the reality TV show in New York City and made it to the final four. She decided to use her celebrity to help change industry attitudes and raise awareness about the severity of scoliosis, especially in girls. She wanted to be the first model on the show with scoliosis, and to talk openly about it. Girls suffering from the disease inundated her with positive feedback. “I didn’t realize it was going to have that big of an effect on people,” she says.
Having scoliosis changed her, deepening her compassion for people who are sick. “I think being a patient at Shriners helped me understand that I want to give back more to people and I want to be an inspiration to younger girls,” she says. “Whatever I do, I want to be able to help young girls who have scoliosis.”