By Chris Caraveo
Noah Rowles has had 18 back surgeries since he was 3. That’s about 18 more than most people hope to have in their lifetime.
Yet Rowles hasn’t let his setbacks deter him from pursuing his goals. One of those is playing for the boys volleyball team at Deer Valley High School.
Rowles was cut from the junior varsity team as a freshman spring 2013. He missed about three-quarters of his sophomore year because of surgery which required him to be homeschooled.
Heading into his junior year, Rowles worked with his brother, Kyle, who played on the varsity team as a senior. Rowles also joined the Valley Fusion club team. Those two endeavors led him to make the junior varsity squad, and eventually varsity this year.
“Being on the team makes me aware that I can be what I want to be even with struggle,” Rowles said. “I can do whatever I want if I accept it and I keep working on what I want to.”
Keep in mind, Rowles would not be where he is now without surgery.
“If he didn’t have surgery he might not have lived,” said Barbara Rowles, Noah’s mother.
When Rowles was 3 and living in Monroe, Louisiana, doctors found a 93-degree curvature of his spine. The deformation crushed his lungs to the point where he and his family needed to do something to relieve the pressure.
They traveled four and a half hours to New Orleans to visit Dr. Andrew King, who specializes in orthopedics. There, doctors inserted a growth rod on each side in Rowles’ back to straighten it. He also had to wear a body cast for three months. He lost half a lung.
At the time, Barbara said Noah didn’t understand why he couldn’t walk on his own. Someone had to carry him around.
“He’s been through a lot,” Barbara said. “The worst part was when he knew he had to go to the hospital and knew it was going to be painful.”
Painful enough that Noah would grab the inside edges of the car handle when they arrived. His parents had a hard time prying his hands off.
“He would not let go because he knew what was coming,” Barbara said.
At a young age, Rowles thought the worst.
“My reaction was I wouldn’t be able to do anything and I would just be one of the people who can’t do anything,” he said.
Rowles and his family – Barbara, his father Bill and his brothers Kyle and Zach – moved to Glendale in 2006 after a brief stay in San Ramon, California in 2005. Fast forward to sophomore year in 2013, and as mentioned before, Noah had surgery to replace his rods. However, the stitches and staples pulled his skin to where it would not close up. So a home health nurse came twice a day to clean the wound. Noah and his family administered medication through IV three times per day.
At least the surgery stabilized Noah’s back, Barbara said. Now 6-foot-1, Noah’s mother said he has stopped growing. His spine has straightened to about an 18-degree curve, and his checkups since the removal have shown no decline or movement.
“Now he has been doing great,” she said. “He’s never quit anything. He’s never let that stop him.”
Rowles’ road to the varsity volleyball team was not easy. But the Deer Valley coaches saw nothing but hard work and determination when he tried out this year.
“He really earned it,” co-head coach Kim Ulrich-Suss said. “The biggest thing is his tenacity. He’s the most coachable. If he makes a mistake he wants to know, ‘What do I do coach, how do I fix it?’”
Knowing Rowles has endured 18 surgeries before adulthood, Ulrich-Suss is at a shortage of words.
“Can’t even fathom,” she said. “He always tells all the other kids in our school, ‘Don’t ever whine. Just work harder and get better.’ That’s his attitude for everything.”
Rowles is also not one to talk about the problems he’s had. Instead, he focuses on being one of the guys.
“What he’s been through, the guys and I have no idea how much he’s gone through,” co-head coach Eric Palmer said. “And you would never know. He just comes in, works hard every day and just wants to be part of the program.”
Rowles plays limited minutes on a team full of seniors, but making the varsity team has been an accomplishment in itself.
“He’s definitely a success story in our program, overcoming so much adversity,” Palmer said.
Rowles is also a success story away from the court. Right about the time Rowles came to New Orleans, Dr. King said doctors around the country were interested in spine cases like Rowles’.
“What happens when you get a very severe spinal curvature in a kid that is very, very young?” Dr. King said. “I took Noah’s problem and showed it around.”
Rowles was basically a prototype for the growing spine rods doctors inserted in his back. He went through this process more or less every six months. Some children may go through the surgery every four months, but Dr. King said they become psychologically upset about the shorter intervals.
Yet in the last two years, doctors now insert a new rod, called a MAGEC Spinal Bracing and Distraction System, into a person’s back to brace the spine during growth and minimize the progression of scoliosis. They place an external remote controller on the back, which signals the rod to elongate.
“It’s probably the fastest growing area of spinal deformity surgery,” Dr. King said. “Here at Children’s Hospital we get about one (person) a week between the three surgeons.”
In the time since Rowles and his family left Louisiana, Dr. King has only had presentations of Rowles through age 5 years, 3 months. Dr. King asked about Rowles height and stature, and he was amazed to hear Rowles has grown to 6-foot-1 and physically active at 18.
“We consider it a success if we get a kid with a 110-degree curve and they end up at 15 with a 50 degree curve, look pretty twisted and they’re still alive, to tell you the truth,” Dr. King said. “But if Noah’s 6-foot-1, leading a normal life, that’s extraordinary. I ought to document that and post it because he almost could be a poster boy for the technology.”
Meanwhile, Rowles is busy attending school and playing volleyball. His teammates certainly have an appreciation for his presence on the court.
“He goes 110 percent every day,” senior Logan Grounds said. “Every time he thinks he messes up and he does perfectly, he comes and looks for help, sees what he did wrong, and he does everything right most of the time.”
Ditto for senior Zach Ludlam.
“Noah definitely challenges us every day,” Ludlam said. “He never settles for anything less than 100 percent. He always strives to make us better as hitters and as blockers.”
Rowles’ family has always supported his pursuit of volleyball. His brother Kyle played on the varsity team in 2012, and he was the reason Noah took interest in the sport in 2010.
“My older brother tried out and he showed me how fun it was,” Rowles said. “So I tried it out myself and now it’s one of my best things to do.”
Whether he plays or not, his parents are there watching the game.
“To me it’s success,” Barbara said of her son making varsity. “He’s finally able to feel free. He’s always done physical things but he’s had to adapt. He can be with the others. He has great teammates who treat him the same. He’s having the time of his life.”
Rowles plans to study forensics and criminology at a community college after he graduates. He took a forensics class during high school, which sparked his interest in the area. He and his mother have a weekly routine where they watch CSI shows, and Noah pitches in with what he thinks is going to happen.
He has an eye towards becoming a crime scene investigator.
“I’ve always wanted to help people like people have helped me along the way,” Rowles said. “So I might as well try to return the favor.”