She wowed millions of viewers – and moved many to tears – with her heartfelt performances on Britain’s Got Talent.
Despite suffering from the spine deformity scoliosis, plucky Julia Carlile was determined not to let the agony of her condition overshadow her dancing prowess, and she helped her team MerseyGirls earn standing ovations from the judges, including Simon Cowell.
And the drama did not end when the cameras stopped rolling. As The Mail on Sunday revealed earlier this year, the 15-year-old schoolgirl from the Wirral had been desperate to win the ITV show and the £250,000 top prize to fund an experimental operation to straighten out her spine.
Scoliosis is a condition that causes the bones in the spine to curve out of shape. It can affect people of any age but most often becomes visible between the ages of ten and 15.
The causes are unknown but most commonly it is a result of abnormal growth of the spine, which sometimes runs in families.
Julia’s life-changing surgery, only available in the US, also promised to leave her mobile enough to keep dancing – unlike treatment offered on the NHS, which would have left her back too rigid to perform.
Without treatment, the 100-degree curve in her spine would continue to worsen. The deformity was causing pressure on Julia’s internal organs and one of her lungs was being crushed, meaning the teenager struggled for breath after a dance class and had to use an inhaler. She also experienced severe pain in her lower back.
Although MerseyGirls did not win the competition, Cowell was so touched by Julia’s bravery that he paid for her $300,000 surgery.
Today, Julia is on the road to recovery and strong enough to start dancing again, which means this Christmas she will receive her best present ever: the chance to slip on her leotard and perform.
Speaking exclusively to The Mail on Sunday, she says: ‘I always wanted the surgery but could never afford it. I owe Simon so much because if he hadn’t paid for me, my curve would have continued to increase, leaving me unable to dance and in a lot of pain. Having an operation was my only choice.’
Thanks to the anterior scoliosis correction operation (ASC), her condition has now been treated. Darryl Antonacci, Randal Betz and Laury Cuddihy, the doctors who carried out the surgery at St Peter’s Hospital in New Jersey, are pioneers in the procedure. They asked Julia to get in touch with them after seeing her BGT audition.
Julia reveals how Cowell invited her to stay at The Dorchester hotel in London and watch The X Factor last month as a ‘well done’ to her and her family after the surgery. ‘He said I was looking really great. When I told him he’d changed my life, he said, ‘No, you’ve changed my life!’ He gave me a big hug, and when I told him I could dance again, he said, ‘I’m so proud of you.’
‘It’s the best thing in the world – now me and the rest of MerseyGirls can carry on dancing as a group.’
Before the operation, Julia found bending to the side, doing moves with her right leg or bending her back were a struggle. Doctors had offered her spinal-fusion surgery on the NHS, where metal rods are inserted to fuse vertebrae and straighten the spine. Although effective in many cases, this would have left Julia’s back too rigid for the challenging gymnastic moves required of a professional dancer, which is what she hopes to become.
ASC involves a flexible cord being implanted next to the vertebrae. This is then tightened, pulling the spine straight. In Julia’s case, the curve was reduced from more than 100 degrees to about 50. However, the procedure and recovery process were gruelling. Because Julia’s curvature was so severe, doctors had to perform two operations, each lasting about seven hours.
She says she was ‘really nervous’ because of the risk of complications with such extensive spinal surgery, which include nerve damage and the chance of paralysis.
After the operation, Julia had to take three different painkillers for four weeks to numb the agony. On the flight back to the UK, she had to lie down, and once at home she needed help showering and dressing. Even walking was a challenge. ‘I just had to lie down on the couch all day. That was hard because I’m usually so active.’
The procedure that straitened her back
Scoliosis causes the spine to curve to the side instead of running straight down the back.
The curve can affect any part of the spine and there can be more than one curve.
Anterior scoliosis correction (ASC) aims to reduce the degree of the curve and untwist it using screws and a flexible cord.
Doctors access the front of the spine via a 3-4in incision made in the side of the patient’s body.
A titanium screw is inserted via this incision into each vertebra affected by the curve.
In very large rigid curves, the discs between vertebrae and the ligament running down the spine are abnormally stiff, restricting flexibility, and may require cutting. This allows the spine to untwist and straighten better.
A flexible cord is then inserted vertically down the spine and held in place by the screws.
This is pulled tighter from the top vertebra to the bottom vertebra of the curve, pulling the spine straight.
Eventually, Julia was able to start walking further to build up strength, and do a few gentle ballet moves. Swimming also helped her regain her stamina and enabled her shoulder muscles to recover.
Three months after the operation, she has finally been given the go-ahead to dance again, which means she has been practising her moves at a local gym. ‘I can jump. It hurts, but only a bit,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t lift my right arm after surgery but now I’m starting to build up the muscle again.’
WITHOUT the operation, Julia admits there was a risk her organs could have become crushed as her curve continued to worsen. She says: ‘The surgeons said they didn’t understand how I’d been dancing with that curve. But thanks to the operation, my flexibility should be similar to people without scoliosis.
‘The recovery period with ASC is much shorter too – with fusion it’s a minimum of six months, so I couldn’t have continued with MerseyGirls. Occasionally I get a few stabbing pains but that’s to do with the nerves coming back to life.’
There is a chance Julia might have to have one more operation to adjust the cord in her back, which means returning to America in nine months. But for now she is staying positive, and focusing on her next public dance performance, the first since her surgery.
The event is a special Britain’s Got Talent show, taking place at Liverpool Empire Theatre on February 11 in aid of the Alder Hey Children’s Hospital. Julia says: ‘It’s for contestants who have appeared in Britain’s Got Talent over the years and there are two shows in one day.
It’s going to be so amazing because it will be the first time that people will see me dancing again. We’re going to be doing the Fight Song by Rachel Platten, which was the music for our first BGT audition.’
Julia aims to be fully fit by then and able to perform the tricks that were difficult before the surgery. In the meantime, she is building up her stamina with a tough six-day-a-week training regime.
Long term, it is not known whether the cord will shift. If it does, then Julia may need a further operation. Additional surgery could reduce the curve further but she is no longer in pain and can achieve her dancing dreams without this.
‘She would love a totally straight spine but she knows that would be purely cosmetic and mean having to endure more treatment,’ says her mother, Kate, 39.
Today Julia will follow her usual tradition of putting on her Christmas pyjamas to watch a movie with her mother, father Chris, 42, and sister Alice. On Christmas Day, there will be lunch for 14 people, followed by games.
The day will be ‘so good’, says Julia, because she will be well enough to celebrate it properly.
Kate has bought Julia leotards as an early Christmas gift. Julia says: ‘Before, I’d always wear a big baggy jumper to cover my back. Now I love how my back looks – there will be no stopping me in 2018.’