Caroline Heinle, 31, moved out to the West Coast to kickstart her blossoming career as an actress, not thinking twice about the 46-degree curve in her spine.
But as she tried to make ends meet, busing tables as a cocktail waitress in between acting gigs in independent films like “Broken Gardenias” and shooting commercials, her already bad back started to get worse.
“I tend to spread myself too thin and I just took on too much,” she told The Post. “I didn’t have herniated disks before that job.”
Heinle was diagnosed with scoliosis when she was 15 and while she had to wear a back brace for three years, she was still able to do back flips as a cheerleader throughout high school and college.
“When you’re young, you think you’re invincible,” she said.
Back then, her curve was only at 32 degrees. By 2014, she was facing a degenerative spine that was causing constant headaches, intense joint pain and a bout of depression.
And then one of her high school pals who was also diagnosed with scoliosis in her teens started posting on social media about a miracle back surgery she had in New York.
“She told me that it was one of the best and worst things she’d done because it was painful, but she was so happy she did it,” Heinle said.
It was enough to convince her to book a meeting with Dr. Thomas Errico, the co-director of NYU’s Spine Center and the same surgeon who operated on her friend a year earlier.
“He told me that I’d need surgery at some point and he just said it’s really based on you and how you feel,” she recalled. “Doctors just look at what they see in an x-ray, so it’s really based on the patient.”
Heinle didn’t go under his knife until a year and a half later — getting a spinal fusion last August that she says “saved” her.
Errico said it’s common for patients dealing with chronic pain from degenerative conditions like scoliosis to only decide on surgery as a final measure.
“I always tell people if you’re dying to have an operation, I don’t do surgery. I’ll send them to a psychiatrist,” he said. “It’s only when people have been living in pain for a while that they come to the decision to get surgery because they say, ‘I don’t want to live like this anymore.’”
In fact, nine out of 10 patients at NYU Langone’s new state-of-the-art center – a one-stop treatment facility that now offers a neurosurgery team, pain management specialists and rehab care that officially launched earlier this month — don’t require surgery.
“Our goal is not to operate on people,” Errico said.
While Heinle didn’t avoid surgery, she was back on her feet just hours after the procedure — walking around the hospital and uploading videos to her blog, Fighting for My Immunity, where she shares her story in hopes of inspiring others struggling with back problems.
“I wanted to get it out to other people that if you’re suffering from these things, you’re not alone,” she said.
And now, nearly eight months after her operation, Heinle is back in the gym working out with the help of a physical therapist and dreams of moving to the Big Apple to continue pursuing her acting career.
“When you go through any time of trauma, whether it’s mental, physical or emotional, it definitely makes you grow as a person,” she said. “It made me more vulnerable to the injustices that people go through and now I want to stand up for women and female rights on so many different levels because of everything I went through.”