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Is bone-breaking surgery to grow taller worth the risk?

Limb-lengthening surgery for cosmetic reasons is in demand in India, but it does not always end well, the programme Undercover Asia finds out.

Is bone-breaking surgery to grow taller worth the risk?

Limb-lengthening surgery using a method first developed in 1951.

DELHI: Hoping to propel his career to greater heights, sales consultant Amit (not his real name) underwent surgery to break his bones and make himself taller.

At 1.6 metres, he felt everyone towered over him. With a new job in the United States lined up, he decided to take his chances with orthopaedic surgeon and height-gain specialist Amar Sarin.

“There are moments when you feel that there’s no need, and why do you go through all the hassle?” said Amit, 36, who did not want to be identified.

“Maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong … time will tell. But for your own self-confidence, I think a couple of centimetres shouldn’t hurt.”

He had wires inserted, and a nail fixed to external frames was drilled into his tibia, or shin bone.

A surgeon drills wires and a rod into a patient’s leg.

After the operation, rods fixed to the frames were expanded each day so the regenerating bones would fill the gap between the breaks.

For him, the months-long process was filled with “more lows than highs”. When Amit found himself gaining less height than expected, he asked for the frames to be removed a week earlier than scheduled.

For his efforts, he gained 3.5 cm. But he told Undercover Asia that he was looking forward to walking normally and travelling with his wife and family again.

Limb lengthening is not a new procedure, but its use for cosmetic reasons remains as controversial as ever.

The operation carries an element of risk and should be offered only when necessary, such as to patients with unequal limb lengths, said Dhananjay Gupta, a member of the Delhi Orthopaedic Association.

The frame supporting the leg is expanded slowly for the regenerating bones to fill the gap.

It is harder to justify if done for cosmetic reasons, especially if complications crop up, he said. In such instances, the likelihood of a lawsuit is also higher.

“Is it because of low self-esteem or is it a genuine need? I mean, a person who is five feet? Fine, if he wants to go up to 5’2”, 5’3”, 5’4”,” he added.

(For) a person who is already 5’6” and wants to go to 5’9”, there has to be something wrong.

MORE REQUESTS LAST YEAR

Yet, demand for the operation continues to grow in India, where height is important in the modelling and showbiz industries as well as the search for a marriage partner.

There are no rules in India determining who should or should not be eligible for limb lengthening.

Sarin, who has done the operation for nearly 400 people over 20 years, received more requests than usual last year. More people worked from home during the COVID-19 pandemic and thought they could recover in secret.

Dr Amar Sarin.

Based in Delhi, he is trained in the Ilizarov method, which is named after Siberian doctor Gavriil Ilizarov, who invented the apparatus in 1951. Nine in 10 of the enquiries Sarin receives are from men.

His patients, who come from all over the world, typically gain seven to 14 cm. He normally charges US$20,000 (S$26,500) for the procedure, much less than the US$75,000 that patients may have to pay in the US.

On doing limb lengthening for cosmetic reasons, he said the ethical boundaries of modern medicine have shifted.

Pointing to demand for procedures such as altering one’s cheekbones and other features for vanity, he questioned: “Is it ethical or is it not ethical?

“It’s a very delicate thing, and it’s a very thin line between them. I’d say it’s a personal choice; it’s not my choice.”

Dr Sarin with his patient Amit (pseudonym).

Height gain can help people to feel empowered, he said. Those who approach him are motivated, and it can be difficult to say no to them.

Nonetheless, he turns down the majority of limb-lengthening requests and discusses with his psychiatrist and psychologist colleagues before deciding whether to go ahead with a case.

He joked that he has competition from his daughter Kamna, a clinical psychologist. She counsels people who are thinking of lengthening their limbs and helps them address dysfunctional thoughts.

‘COMING FROM A VOID WITHIN’

It was not always this way. When Kamna was 16 or 17 years old — and much shorter than her sister — she pestered her father to make her taller.

“At school, the girls around me had shot up. I was always the armrest between all my friends,” she recalled.

Kamna Sarin sees “a lot of people” dealing with identities “established based on their height”.

But after considering the pain and months she would be immobile following the operation, she decided it was not worth it.

Surgery may be an easy fix, she said. “But it’s coming from a void within, and if you don’t start working on that void within, it’ll be procedure after procedure. And it can become an addiction of some sort.

“You may have got what you’ve wanted for so many years; you’ve got the height that you wanted. If you’re still not happy, then what?”

Another advocate of accepting one’s natural height is Ajay Patel, who learnt his lesson the hard way.

WATCH: The extreme lengths to grow taller — Limb-lengthening surgery in India (47:25) 

He did not realise the doctor’s suggestion for gaining height involved bone-cutting, he said. He had thought he would be taking some medicine.

He got an infection after the operation and went through more surgeries. At one point, he felt like he would never recover and even told his mother: “Poison me so I can die.”

Patel finally saw another specialist and underwent a sixth operation. He managed to walk again several months after that.

He believes the first doctor experimented on him, but she rebutted his claim, saying it was “totally false and baseless”. All his surgeries were done by qualified surgeons, she said.

Ajay Patel's legs became infected after his limb-lengthening operation.

She showed Undercover Asia a letter from 2015 in which Patel apologised for making false allegations about his treatment. But he denied writing the letter or signing the document with his thumbprint.

He later learnt that his lack of growth was due to a bone not growing properly in his hips. Today, he stands 1.52 m tall and no longer believes in increasing one’s height “by force”.

“If your height doesn’t increase, it’s not a big deal. You just study well and get on with your life,” he said. “No matter what others say to you, don’t let it take over your mind.”

This episode of Undercover Asia has attracted close to a million views on YouTube. Watch it here.

Patel still has trouble walking.
Source: CNA/dp

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