Bones and confidence grow with Soviet orthopedic technique

Russia has been renowned for its world-leading scientists and inventors over the years. In the 1950s, the Kurgan region became the center of Soviet orthopedics, when a surgeon there invented a revolutionary method of bone-restructuring.

Soviet technology was often quite basic, yet some of it has survived many decades and is still used today.

The orthopedic frame invented by the famed Soviet orthopedist Gavriil Ilizarov back in the ‘50s, still remains the main orthopedic technique for treating bone fractures, all sorts of deformities, injuries, as well as for limb lengthening. Seventy years later, Ilizarov’s breakthrough is still being used to help people overcome their disabilities.

Twenty-seven-year-old Japanese engineer Kajita Naohiro, with lagging self-confidence, deliberately went to the Kurgan region to be treated at the Ilizarov center by the special method.

In Japan, the average height for men is 182 centimeters, I’m ten centimeters shorter,” explains Kajita. “Because of that, some employers refused to hire me. One of them even told me directly that I was too short to deal with the clients.”

Kajita has already spent three months in this hospital and plans to stay for another four to add a coveted seven centimeters to his stature. It may seem like a tall order but the actual surgery is fairly simple, though painful.

By cutting bones and slowly pulling them apart, therefore stimulating tissue regeneration, the frame is able to reshape arms and legs in people who thought they were crippled for life.

Piecing together patients’ shattered bones and, in many cases, their shattered lives, was the main goal when professor Ilizarov designed his first frame using bicycle parts. Sixty years later his invention is increasingly being used to help people who are eager to fracture their legs to become a few centimeters taller, yet the goal is still the same – fixing somebody’s life both literally and figuratively.

About a third of patients admitted to the Ilizarov center nowadays are seeking surgery for cosmetic reasons. Most of them are men and most are not what you would call vertically challenged.

Professor Novikov from the Ilizarov center who operated on many of them says it usually comes down to a man’s pride.

The first patient who turned to us with the leg lengthening request was 2 meters 15 centimeters tall but he still wanted surgery because his partner was taller than him,” recalls Konstantin Novikov.

We like to say that we need to break their legs in order to fix their head. There may be nothing wrong with them from an orthopedic point of view, but there is something psychological that prevents them from living their lives fully, being happy. And we fix it.

Leg lengthening surgeries are banned in many countries and, even when allowed, they are prohibitively expensive. In Russia, the entire course costs $11,000 – about one tenth of the similar package in the United States.

Financial considerations were among the reasons that made Moises Rivera travel from Washington State to western Siberia. Yet, his main motive for the surgery had to do with how he fared among others.

In America the average height is 175. I was 167 or 168. So, eight centimeters would have brought me right to average,” says Moises. “I just wanted to be average. For women, height is not so important. A girl can be short and it’s not a big deal. A guy is expected to be taller.

Just before the operation Moises met a Russian girl who found his original height quite endearing. Yet, he still went ahead with the surgery, adding seven more centimeters to his self-confidence.

She told me the whole time you are crazy, you are normal, you are perfect and now she is like, oh, you are so tall,” says Moises.

That is quite a compliment for somebody who is used to falling short of his own expectations.