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From post-WWII Russia To 7-year-old Giana Brown, a limb-lengthening method evolves

young patientGiana Brown is one tough little girl. When she was 7 years old, an orthopedic surgeon, Jeffrey Young, MD, from Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, placed a brace called a Taylor Spatial Frame on her lower left leg that would help lengthen it about three inches to match her right leg. To accomplish this, the brace would require adjustments of about one millimeter a day for more than six months.

Her parents could have made those adjustments, but Giana insisted on doing it herself. She used a little wrench to turn the knobs that would lengthen the struts on the brace according to a computer-generated, color-coded prescription sheet.

Sculpting Bones,” the story of Giana’s rare bone disorder, her surgery and her recovery, is featured in this summer’s edition of Stanford Medicine magazine. An animated graphic illustrates in detail how the brace and bone biology work together to lengthen limbs. The story focuses not only the remarkable method of cutting a bone and slowly lengthening the gap to allow it to grow — called “distraction osteogensis” — but also on the unusual history of the “external fixator” device that makes this growth possible.

The device originated in a remote region of Siberia, Russia, nearly 70 years ago, where a young doctor, Gavriil Ilizarov, MD, cared for a patient population that included soldiers returning from the front lines of World War II with a vast array of bone injuries. Ilizarov discovered his method of distraction osteogenesis by accident, and a revolutionary method of bone lengthening was born.

Several decades later, orthopedic surgeon Charles Taylor, MD, and his brother, engineer Harold Taylor, modernized the device, changing the angle of the struts for more flexibility, and creating a computer program that generated prescriptions, “accurate to within a millionth of an inch and a ten-thousandth of a degree,” for adjusting the struts daily.

Although Giana’s dad, Greg, accurately describes the device as “draconian-looking,” her surgeon, Young, hails it as an ideal tool for healing his pediatric patients. “I really like how the technology allows me to basically sculpt the bone,” he says. “It’s the perfect blend of engineering and art.”

For Giana Brown, the accuracy, simplicity, and artistry of the device has paid off: She’s back to running and playing with her friends the way a healthy, happy kid should. Read her story - and her tips for making life a little easier in the frame -  here.

Previously: Stanford Medicine magazine opens up the world of surgery
Photo of Giana Brown by Max Aguilera-Hellweg

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