Disabled girl hopes 'to dance, twirl'

Sinai doctors treating Haitian youngster who has never walked

July 11, 2008|By Euna Lhee | Euna Lhee,Sun Reporter

C uddling a stuffed St. Bernard and pink teddy bear in her hospital room, Melissa Cortesi doesn't cry, despite the metal braces, pins and needles that pierce her swollen right leg.

Nurses give her valium to help the 5-year old Haitian girl sleep and forget the pain from surgery Monday at Sinai Hospital of Baltimore.

There, for 11 hours, a team of orthopedic surgeons operated to fix her club foot and straighten her right leg. They hope it will alter a life she has spent crawling on the ground instead of walking.

"Our goal is to make her able to walk for the first time in her life," said Dr. Dror Paley, the lead orthopedic surgeon of the team and director of the hospital's Rubin Institute for Advanced Orthopedics. "Three months from now, we hope she'll take her first steps with braces."

Paley took the case pro bono after being approached by a nonprofit humanitarian organization called Healing the Children, which has matched more than 146,000 desperately ill or disabled children with volunteer doctors in the United States over the last 29 years.

The doctors say Melissa appears to suffer from an extreme case of arthrogryposis, a rare genetic disorder that causes joint contractures and muscle weakness, making her legs fold up like a pretzel. The disease derives its name from the Greek term for curved or hooked joints and can make it difficult for the victim to properly sit, stand and walk.

Doctors don't know the exact cause, but arthrogryposis occurs in one out of 3,000 births in the United States, according to the National Support Group for Arthrogryposis. The children require vigorous therapy and surgery, sometimes including amputation.

To straighten the leg, Paley and Dr. Shawn Standard lengthened the muscles and tendons and applied an external device to the bones in Melissa's right leg. Melissa, who weighs 27 pounds, will undergo the same surgery for her left leg a month from now.

The procedure is so new, Paley adds, that there is little written about it.

He said he studied Melissa's disorder through photographs, videos and X-rays and thought that he could correct her problems. Sinai Hospital also agreed to handle her treatment free of charge.

"I think this was a compelling case. If you looked at her situation, it was very dire," said Neil Meltzer, president of Sinai Hospital of Baltimore. "We wanted to do everything we can to help this little girl."

Suffering severe orthopedic deformities since birth, Melissa spent most of her life crawling on all fours, according to Janie Livingston, a Healing the Children coordinator from the Grosse Pointe, Mich., area. The girl's knees are rough to the touch and worn by Port-au-Prince's dirt and concrete roads. She was abandoned by her parents early in life and never received any medical care for her condition, Livingston said.

Livingston said she met Melissa, who lives in an institution for abandoned children, during a visit to Haiti in November.

"My mother and sister were actually the first to come across Melissa, and they told me, 'This is the one. She is such a darling,'" said Livingston, 38, a stay-at-home mother of four who had played host to seven youngsters with Healing the Children. "They watched her over the years, crawling with shoes on her hands."

Healing the Children helps to deliver medical care to disfigured children around the world. Volunteers from local chapters find health professionals and hospitals who are willing to donate their services. They then assign each child to a host family, who provides room and board during the child's stay here.

Over the past few months, Livingston made arrangements for Melissa to receive treatment here. She brought videos and X-rays to Detroit doctors, who referred her to Paley. She prepared Melissa's medical visa and matched her with a host family - her best friend's - on Mother's Day.

"Melissa was a perfect fit for us," said Lori Eger, 38, also a homemaker with four children. "She shows us that there are children that have nothing and need our help."

Since May, Melissa has been on camping and fishing trips with the family, including tubing on Lake Saint Clair in Michigan. She gained weight and learned to speak in English within a matter of weeks, Eger said.

"She wants to dance and twirl," Eger said. "The surgery gave her that chance."

Melissa will attend kindergarten in the fall in Detroit and is excited about going to school for the first time with kids her age, Eger says. Before that, however, she faces another painful surgery and rehabilitation. In 2010, she will return to Haiti to another foster family - this time, walking.

"We hope her story has a magical happy ending," Meltzer said, "because these days we need a story like that."


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