Watching Hellen Aguilera climb a set of stairs with a giant smile on her face, it’s hard to imagine the six-year-old just did it for the first time and impossible to ignore her excitement.
“I dreamed of this day!” she exclaimed in Spanish to her family, therapists and fellow patients of Shriners Hospitals for Children — St. Louis.
Hellen, from Chinandega, Nicaragua, has been a patient for three months. She was brought to St. Louis with a congenital deformity of her left leg, which had caused a significant discrepancy in the lengths of her lower extremities. In order to walk, she would have to bend down to get her left foot to the ground, a debilitating and beyond uncomfortable process.
But, Shriners Hospitals' surgeon Mark Miller, M.D., knew right away that Hellen’s life could be significantly enhanced with a process known as Van Nes rotationplasty, so he talked to her family about it and it was agreed to go forward with the procedure.
Rotationplasty is an alternative surgical procedure to limb sparing surgery. It is a type of autograft in which a portion of limb is removed, while the remaining limb below the first is rotated 180 degrees and reattached. This surgery is used when a portion of an extremity is injured or involved with a disease, frequently cancer. While Hellen did not have cancer, her leg condition did make her a good candidate for the rare, but increasingly popular procedure.
Typically, once rotated, the ankle joint becomes the knee joint and ideally is in-line parallel to the healthy knee on the other leg. The limb is rotated because the ankle flexes in the opposite direction compared to the knee. The benefit to the patient is that after the rotation, he or she has a functioning knee joint that can better control a prosthetic.
Not only was Hellen a good candidate, she was a star patient who won the hearts of basically the entire staff, and was even featured on its 2016 holiday card to donors, patients and friends of Shriners Hospitals for Children — St. Louis.
“Hellen was very determined,” said Donna Griffin, director of rehabilitation services. “To her, it wasn’t a question. She got her first prosthetic and that was it. She took off!”
Physical Therapist Erica Morrison, who worked closely with Hellen during her entire stay, agreed. “She would do whatever was asked of her,” Morrison said. “And she always came to therapy with a smile on her face.”
While in St. Louis, Hellen and her family took in the local sites, including the Missouri Botanical Gardens and the St. Louis Zoo, where she saw her first elephant.