The Russian Connection

This in the second post in the Story of my Life series which covers my life as an amputee from the very beginning. To get all the context, please do read the first post as well – The Lottery of Birth if you haven’t already. Enjoy!

Sitting at home with a fractured leg without having to go to school as a 6 year old was fun for a month. But after 3 months I was getting pretty restless. A family friend of ours recommended going to see a well renowned Orthopaedic in my city. And so we had setup an appointment to meet Dr. Rex.

He was a dinosaur with tiny little hands who couldn’t even reach for his stethoscope, in my imagination at least.

T-Rex as a Doctor

Illustration by Pavel Roshchin

But turns out he was just another balding human and a pretty nice person. I’d be visiting him often over the next 10 years of my life at least. After diagnosing me, he came to the conclusion that I have Pseudarthrosis which is pretty rare. It’s the name given for fractures that do not heal. The lack of bone marrow in 7cms of my tibia caused it to be more brittle and to fracture easily.

Okay now my dad’s advice made sense. Either way it was a ticking time bomb and was bound to happen at some point.

So what do you do with a fracture that will not heal? Well there’s no super glue that’ll stick bones back together. Hence the only option was surgery and it was a pretty complex one. For this let me introduce you to a man named Gavriil Ilizarov.

Gavriil Abramovich Ilizarov was a Soviet physician who was known for inventing the Ilizarov apparatus which was what was used to perform my surgery. He was born in 1921, the eldest of six children to a poor Jewish family and eventually worked his way up in life to become one of the most renowned orthopedicians in the world. He died in 1992 of heart failure. A couple of years after that, yours truly was born.

For long time, Ilizarov faced skepticism, resistance and political intrigues from the medical establishment in Moscow which tried to defame him as a “quack”. However, the steadily increasing statistics of successful treatments of patients led to a growing fame of Ilizarov throughout the country. He became known among patients as the “magician from Kurgan”.

Isn’t it strange how the inventions of one Soviet dude who never gave up on his dream would be used to attempt to treat the fracture of a 6 year old in the quaint little town of Coimbatore somewhere in the south of India? Just shows that all of us are connected to each other somehow in the grand scheme of things.

The Butterfly Effect is a popular theory that gives an example that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can cause a hurricane on the other side of the world. In simple terms, it’s the idea that tiny changes in complex systems can cause huge effects. Imagine then the effects we cause in the world as we go about our day.

You decide to go out for a drink and then like a responsible citizen you did not drive back home. Because you took a cab, you didn’t run over the girl walking down that street who eventually became a baby sitter for a child. She introduced this child to the guitar and taught him to play Pyschosocial by Slipknot. The child then grew up to be a world famous musician, who’s music now gives peace and tranquility to millions of people all over the world.

You did that. You could be responsible for the next Freddie Mercury or in the worst case, Chad Kroeger.

Every little act of empathy and kindness that we show is what prevents the world from falling into chaos. What we do everyday is more important than what we do once in a while.

Dr. Rex was about to attempt his own act of kindness, the culmination of all his studies and work over the years. He had to consult multiple doctors around the world before going ahead with this surgery. And all I could do was trust my future in him to perform a surgery invented by a Soviet wartime doctor.

The Ilizarov apparatus looked like something out of a slasher movie. It had three rings that would be fixed starting just below the knee spaced equally up to the point just above the ankle. Each ring had a few rods coming out of it which went through one side of the flesh through the bone and then out the other side.

The plan was to remove the 7 cms of the bone that did not have the bone marrow and to make a cut in the tibia a little higher up. Then using the Ilizarov apparatus which would hold the bone in place, the ring in the centre had screws which were to be tightened daily that would move the bone downwards by 1mm. Eventually it would come in contact with the bone at the bottom in the hopes that it would fuse, while the bone above would grow back.

Dr. Rex explained all of this using fake bones at that time, but here’s a rendition which might help with the understanding. I totally drew this as a kid and not with Photoshop or anything.

Two kids playing

Yes I had a Lou Bega doll that would sing Mambo No. 5

And so 19 years ago on this very day of April 18th, I was getting ready for the first of many surgeries to come. The whole experience was brand new and scary. From putting on the hospital gown to being stretchered into the operation theatre.

I stared up at the lights of the operation theatre and took a peek one last time at the leg that would never be the same again. The nurse injected me and they put a mask on my face.

As the anaesthesia started to take effect, I closed my eyes and drifted off into a deep slumber.