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.
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Gabi’s family thoroughly researched the procedure, comparing it with the other options. Conventional limb-saving and amputation pose the risks of infection and broken bone grafts. To accommodate a growing child, the prostheses require continual replacing.
With rotationplasty, the modified limb grows with the child. The technique eliminates many risks of traditional surgeries. A critical drawback is the unusual appearance of the post-op foot.
The Shulls learned that rotationplasty isn’t new, dating back to the 1970s. They watched videos of active post-op kids, water-skiing, rock-climbing, and rollerblading. Gabi’s orthopedist advised that she’d have no physical limitations. This information clinched her decision. She could live with a backward foot.
To shrink the tumor to an operable size, Gabi underwent 12 sessions of chemotherapy. The chemicals made her ill, and she became bald. Then, she placed herself in the care of Dr. Howard Rosenthal of Menorah Medical Center. In practice for 26 years, he’d performed six rotation plastides.
The procedure took four hours. First, Dr. Rosenthal amputated Gabi’s leg at mid-thigh. Then, he removed the knee region containing the cancer. After rotating her lower leg, he realigned the nerves, muscles, and blood vessels, attaching the leg to her thigh. Carbon fiber plates fused the bones. Here, Gabi explains the procedure.
Initially, bearing weight on her new leg was painful. With her ankle frozen at 90 degrees, the range-of-motion therapy was grueling. Walking without assistance took a whole year to achieve.
Another year of perseverance brought her back onstage. Gabi had been dancing competitively since age 3. In addition to ballet, she performed tap, jazz, hip-hop, and contemporary forms. Her 6-year dancing history fueled the drive to regain her footing. At age 11, she reached her goal.
As you can imagine, dancing on a prosthesis poses quite a challenge. Gabi must manipulate her foot to move the device. Pointing her toes makes the appliance straight, and flexing them bends it. Mind you, her foot is reversed from its normal position!
Now age 15, Gabi has a full dancing repertoire. She’s taking jazz classes and has added pointe to her skills. A new ballet foot enables pivoting on her toes. She’s also returned to competing.
Kristen Kemp, director of Gabi’s dance school, is floored by her talent and determination. Gabi doesn’t even need to modify steps to sync with her classmates. She adapts her moves independently, on par with advanced dancers.
Additionally, Gabi is National Spokesperson for “The Truth 365,” an organization dedicated to raising awareness of childhood cancer. Here are the heart-wrenching statistics.
Annually in the US, cancer takes the lives of 2,500 children. On average, there are 15,000 new cases diagnosed each year. However, few corporations and individuals are funding research.
Using social networking sites, the organization seeks the help of government leaders and the public. Films and documentaries depict the lives of children battling cancer. Gabi’s testimony is among them, encouraging other cancer sufferers to pursue their dreams. Here’s a video clip of her unprecedented achievement.
Gabi’s story is prompting amputees worldwide to obtain the prosthetic ballet foot. Prosthetist Keith Andrews of Independence, Missouri has received inquiries from Argentina, Australia, and Brazil.
Ultimately, Gabi wants to major in pediatric medicine and help find a cure for cancer or work as a nurse. As an amputee who regained her dancing ability, she believes she can do anything. Gabi abides by her personal creed, “Don’t ever stop living your dreams!”
Applicable to You
Do you have a haunting vision, persistent wish, or longstanding goal? Does it seem beyond your reach? Cast doubt aside, and let Gabi’s life inspire you. Persevering, step-by-step, you’ll see your dream come true!