Watching teenager Gabi Shull dancing is captivating! The young girl is amazingly graceful. Her beauty is breathtaking, and her sweet smile warms your heart. You’d never know that she is amputee ballerina and her costume hides an artificial leg.
In January 2011, at age 9, Gabi was ice skating in her native town of Warrensburg, Missouri. Suddenly, she fell on the ice, landing on her right knee. An accomplished dancer, the incident took her by surprise. Moreover, the bruised knee hurt terribly.
After two weeks of no improvement, Gabi’s parents brought her to a local hospital. An x-ray suggested a stress fracture. However, two months later, the knee joint was still swollen and very painful. An MRI scan revealed a grave diagnosis. Gabi had life-threatening bone cancer.
The medical term for bone cancer of the knee is osteosarcoma. As explained on Healthline, it tends to arise during adolescent growth spurts. Malignant cells overtake muscle tissue and bone. The average age of diagnosis is 15. The conventional treatment is chemotherapy, followed by surgery.
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Cancer.org describes the typical surgical options. The goal of each is to extract all malignant cells. Any remaining can multiply, producing a new tumor. To prevent this, doctors make a wide excision, removing cancer and surrounding normal tissue.
For knee cancer, the two conventional operations are limb-sparing and amputation. Limb-sparing leaves the leg intact while amputation removes part of the extremity. Either way, the procedure, and outcome are traumatizing.
The challenge with salvaging a limb is preserving its associated blood vessels, nerves, and muscles. Equally important is maintaining a normal appearance of the leg. To replace the excised limb, a surgeon may graft bone from another part of the body. Alternatively, the doctor may insert a metal rod called a prosthesis.
If a tumor invades a leg’s nerves and blood vessels, a surgeon must perform the amputation. The extent of removal depends on how far cancer has spread. During the operation, a surgeon creates a cuff of muscle and skin around the remaining bone. The cuff fits into the end of a prosthesis.
Once fitted with a prosthesis, a patient undergoes rehabilitation. On average, it takes one year of physical therapy to re-learn how to walk! If a patient is lax with the exercises, their leg becomes useless. As a child continues growing, technicians modify the prosthesis to suit their bodily changes.
Rebound From Shock
Initially, Mrs. Shull didn’t believe the doctor’s report. Gabi was only 9 years old! However, there was no denying the MRI findings. Understandably, Gabi was frightened and upset.
“Mommy, why has this happened to me?” she asked, confused. Her mother’s pained reply was, “Honey, we don’t know why, but we must do our best to get through this.” Gabi rose to the challenge.
A Third Option
Gabi longed to continue dancing. A type of radical surgery would make this possible – rotationplasty. For this procedure, a surgeon amputates the lower leg but salvages the foot. Then the foot is turned 180 degrees and reattached to the thigh. The foot inserts into a prosthesis. Ingeniously, the ankle replaces the knee joint, enabling normal mobility.
However, few surgeons are qualified to perform the delicate operation. In the US, only about 10 procedures occur annually. Additionally, many patients find post-op appearance disturbing. The toes on the salvaged foot point backward.