It was just after Clara Dawson’s first birthday when her family noticed something different about her little legs. One leg seemed to be longer than the other.
Her parents took her to her pediatrician, who recommended Clara visit an orthopedic specialist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
That’s where the Dawsons learned Clara had fibular hemimelia, a congenital defect that causes disproportionate leg growth.
Washington University physicians at St. Louis Children’s Hospital calculated that Clara’s left leg would be as much as 5 inches shorter than her right leg by the time she finished growing.
Leg length discrepancies are a fairly common orthopedic problem. Treatments vary depending on severity, ranging from using devices like shoe lifts, to prosthetic limbs or even amputation.
“Clara’s defect was not severe enough for amputation, but too severe to consider making her other leg shorter to compensate. A leg lengthening procedure was her best option,” said Dr. Eric Gordon, orthopedic surgeon at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
Under the care of Dr. Gordon, Clara underwent leg-lengthening surgery when she was 8 years old.
During the procedure, Dr. Gordon put pins in the tibia and fibula of Clara’s left leg, from below the knee to her ankle. The pins were connected to a cage surrounding her leg. Each week, Clara’s parents twisted six knobs or struts on that cage which incrementally lengthened her bones to an acceptable level.
It was a painful recovery. Clara spent four days in the hospital. At home, she used a wheelchair, walker and eventually crutches to move around.
It was an even more painful rehabilitation. Clara needed physical therapy three times a week to correct the positioning of her foot and visited St. Louis Children’s once a week for additional therapy.
At the hospital, she rode bikes and climbed a rock wall. “It’s probably been the most painful thing, trying to get her to do daily physical therapy” explained her father, Curt.
Clara had a difficult first year. She missed her friends at Woodland Elementary School, but she made the most out of her situation. For Halloween, she used her brace to create a half human and half robot costume.
Six months following her surgery, doctors removed the brace. Eighteen months after that, Clara completed her therapy. But Clara’s journey is far from over.
Clara will continue to visit St. Louis Children’s Hospital until she is twelve to monitor her leg growth. Then she will undergo another surgery and more therapy, this time for her left femur, the bone in her thigh.
“I think it will be easier for us, but I don’t know about her,” said Curt “I think she will be apprehensive when she remembers the pain of the first surgery.”
But the Dawsons feel comfortable with Clara’s care at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, and Dr. Gordon.
“This is the best place ever. Everyone here is just amazing,” told her mother, Cassie “Dr. Gordon takes time to answer your questions, and the staff is superb.”
Even Clara’s brothers chant “We love Children’s!” as they approach the familiar building.
Clara’s care has become a family affair. And St. Louis Children’s Hospital has become a regular part of the Dawson family.