At age 14, Trevor Wright hit a growth spurt. Unfortunately, as he grew taller, his chest sank deeper. Wright was born with a condition called pectus excavatum — or funnel chest — and when he hit adolescence, the slight dent in the middle of his breastbone became more severe.
His chest pressed in on his heart and lungs, causing him pain, especially when he walked or exercised.
“I would compare it to somebody holding onto your chest and crushing it very slowly,” said Wright, who lives in Mexico, Missouri. “It feels like a heavy weight on your chest that slowly gets heavier.”
His pediatrician referred him to MU Health Care. That’s where Wright and his family met thoracic surgeon Sebastian Wiesemann, MD, who explained that pectus excavatum is a deformity of the cartilage that connects the ribs to the breastbone. It affects about 1 in every 400 children —mostly boys.
“There are two main reasons to treat it,” Wiesemann said. “One is if the patient has symptoms, which is either pain or shortness of breath while exercising. But there is another symptom, as well, because these kids, especially if it’s severe, suffer because of their cosmetic appearance. They’re not asking to have a perfect body. They’re not trying to be Brad Pitt. They just want to feel normal. When you fix it, their self-esteem is better.”
Wright said he wasn’t overly concerned about his appearance, but because of the pain he was experiencing, he and his family decided surgery was a good option. The surgery — known as the Nuss procedure — involves inserting one or two metal bars under the rib cage and above the heart. The bar is slightly curved, and once inside the patient it’s rotated so it pushes outward on the breastbone. The bar is secured to the ribs with sutures and metal plates to hold it in place and is removed after two or three years once the chest is completely stable.
“I told a good friend of mine about it, and he said, ‘Dude, you’re going to be Iron Man,’” Wright said.
Wiesemann performed surgery on Wright in January 2021. MU Health Care uses a new pain management technique called intercostal nerve cryoablation. It’s a temporary freezing of the nerves that run between the ribs that interrupts pain transmission to the brain, reducing the need for pain medicine and shortening hospital stays after pectus excavatum repair. After a few days in the hospital, Wright was cleared to go home.
For six weeks, he avoided bending, twisting or lifting, and for the next six weeks he gradually increased his activities. He said what he missed most during this time was jumping on the family’s trampoline with his younger brothers.
“I’d characterize our relationship as a large dog with a bunch of screaming chihuahuas,” he joked. “But I love them to death. I could not ask for better brothers.”
Three months after surgery, Wright was cleared to do anything he wanted except sports with heavy contact or extreme twisting, such as football or wrestling. He entered his sophomore year of high school pain-free and eager to take a swing at new challenges.
“I think after the surgery it gave me a little bit of a surge to do something new,” Wright said. “It gave me a little motivation to try tennis. I’m glad I got it done. Now the pain is past me, and I’m fully functional again.”