Smiling clowns on go-carts in a parade might be the first image that comes to mind when one thinks about Shriners. For three local families, that first image is the smiling faces of doctors and nurses at the Shriners Hospitals for Children in Greenville.

The hospital is extending its reach into the Lowcountry to serve the 200-plus patients between Charleston and Savannah who currently travel to Greenville, as well as future patients.

The monthly clinic will be in spaces leased from Beaufort Memorial Hospital at 7 Arley Way in Bluffton’s Westbury Park and will provide post-op visits, wound checks, new patient consultations and follow-up appointments.

Sam Meighan, 17, and Emily Oldham, 11, of Hilton Head Island and Katie Lyons, 14, of Bluffton are Shriners Kids, a status that comes with being a patient. Each of them is at a different stage with a diagnosis of scoliosis, a birth defect that causes curvature of the spine.

Sam’s condition was discovered at age 9 during a camp physical. His mother, Renee Meighan, said they were first told (by specialists in Charleston) that Sam would be in a brace until such time as a fused spine would be necessary.

Meighan wasn’t satisfied with that prognosis. In an online chatroom, she learned about an operation at the Shriners hospital that could help Sam right away, before his growth spurt began. She knew that was where they needed to go.

“When you get there, they’re not talking just to the parent. They’re talking to the child,” Meighan said. “I was impressed with the props they brought out to talk to this 9 year-old about his spine. Everything at the hospital is designed around the children.”

For those families who must make the four-hour drive to Greenville, Shriners who live in the Low-country offer transportation at no expense.

The medical treatment, also, is at no expense. Renee Meighan said that they did not pay for anything when Sam was admitted to the program. Shriners will take insurance, but if that does not cover costs, families still do not pay for anything.

Three days after his surgery, Sam had only one limitation once the incision sites healed: No jumping on trampolines.

“They want to make sure all their patients are heading in the right direction,” said Sam. “They want to see the best out of you.”

Emily is waiting for an opportunity to get the surgery. She’s on the quick-call list, which could mean heading for the O.R. at a moment’s notice.

Because of her worsening condition and the fact that she has nearly finished her growth spurt, Emily is not a candidate for the type of surgery Sam received, which implanted special staples along the spine.

Her mother, Peggy Oldham said a rod – she hopes it’s a short one – would be implanted in her spine to straighten the alignment. Once the surgery is done, the pain and discomfort Emily feels now will dissipate, but the full recovery time is lengthy and for an active, athletic teen it will be a challenge.

“There will be no ballet. None,” said Emily. “No horseback riding, no swimming.” She will have to stop those activities and possibly stop playing the violin for one year following the surgery so that everything can heal firmly in place.

Katie is on her second brace since beginning treatment two years ago.

At first, “They gave her a 98 percent chance of needing surgery,” said her mother, Mary Beth Lyons. But Katie has been diligent in wearing the brace and the prognosis has improved. If Katie doesn’t get any worse, the doctors now say she won’t need surgery. “In her case, it’s actually getting better,” Lyons said. “It’s unheard of. They’re very excited. So far she’s okay; however, we don’t know what’s ahead of her.”

Katie, an avid swimmer, thinks scoliosis is not the worst thing in the world and doesn’t mind the brace. “I wear it every day except for when I am swimming. My classmates think it’s funny because they can bounce footballs off me all the time. I call the brace my abs of steel,” Katie said.

For more information about Shriners Hospital for Children in Greenville, call 866-459-0013.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.