An Unlikely Inspiration

Sharon's bone-stretcher April 2009 007.jpg

In Burying My Dead, the character of Simeon Small struggled with a congenital affliction that left him with one leg two inches shorter than the other, enough to make everyday living painful but bearable. Working in the glass factory of Pittsburgh or digging graves at Lone Fir Cemetery, his back and hips would ache because of this malformity. Who would guess that my beautiful friend, Sharon, was my inspiration?

Sharon’s father was the first to notice that baby Sharon wasn’t moving one leg. As it turned out, the ball part of the hip joint was perfectly fine, but the socket hadn’t formed adequately – a condition known as hip displasia. Without a fix, that leg would have been like a noodle. Doctors performed surgery and placed Sharon in a frog-like cast for months. The result was good; the hip joint worked. But the cure created a new problem. While bone was growing on one leg, it was stifled on the other. By the time Sharon reached her full height, one leg was two inches shorter than the other.

“I wore an elevated shoe,” Sharon remembers. “What young girl wants to do that?” At the age of fifteen, an orthopedic surgeon recommended surgery. “I laughed.” The condition wasn’t painful yet. But in her twenties, her back started to ache. By the time she was an active forty-year-old, routinely bicycling and hiking, she wondered if she was heading for a life of increasing pain. It was time to make a change. With the help of a supportive Kaiser doctor, Sharon began an eight-month process that, miraculously, grew bone infinitesimally, incrementally.

On March 30, 2009, the surgeon drilled a few holes in the femur to weaken it, then snapped it with a surgical chisel. Next, that weird looking contraption known as a circular external fixation device was attached. The white-capped metal rods were inserted into the femur for stability; in combination with the scaffold, the bone fragments were held in place. Nine days after the incisions, Sharon began the painstaking process of lengthening her limb. Every morning, noon and night, millimeter by millimeter, Sharon gingerly rotated the turnbuckle screw according to strict instructions. Sharon remembers seeing a wispy whiteness on the x-rays, proof that bone was slowly taking shape. By June 5th, phase one was complete, but a reconfigured frame had to be worn through November. It was a long ordeal, but Sharon had her eye on the prize.

“It felt amazing to walk barefoot on the beach, to do yoga without Birkenstocks, to roller skate.” And, of course, the pain is no longer life-altering.

Nope. Not Chef Boy-Ar-Dee. This is Dr. Ilizarov and his ingenious invention.

Nope. Not Chef Boy-Ar-Dee. This is Dr. Ilizarov and his ingenious invention.

Sharon’s life-changing procedure was developed by a Soviet physician from Siberia in 1944. Upon seeing so many patients who suffered from musculoskeletal injuries during World War II, Dr. G.A. Ilizarov created the technique that bears his name. Thanks to his tenacity and ingenuity, local bone regeneration was made possible with minimally invasive surgery.

Simeon Small had to suffer his whole life. Thankfully, Sharon did not.

Bettie Denny