While her body was still developing, the growth plate in Shymeia's left leg was damaged, causing it to grow slower than it would have under normal conditions. Growth plates are soft pieces of cartilage that gradually harden into bones as children grow. Near the end of puberty, the plates become solid bone, but before they do, they are vulnerable to fractures. Warmth and swelling at the end of a bone, near the joint, or pain in that area can indicate plate damage. In Shymeia's case, an infection when she was an infant further weakened her growth plate, making it prone to injury from a common childhood accident like a fall.
Because bones grow slowly, the difference in her legs wasn’t noticed until Shymeia’s left leg was nearly two inches shorter than the right. Shymeia wasn’t complaining of any pain, but when her mother spotted the abnormal gait while walking behind her on the way to go swimming one day, they decided to make an appointment with an orthopedist. After an X-ray identified the issue, doctors at Mercy Hospital in Hot Springs referred Shymeia to Arkansas Children’s Hospital. Growth plate fractures can often be treated with splints or casts, but because the difference between Shymeia’s legs was so significant, Dr. Scott Schoenleber, an orthopedic surgeon at ACH, determined she was a good candidate for a leg lengthening procedure.
Shymeia's team of specialists inserted a metal rod and magnetic device into her thigh bone, which allowed them to gradually lengthen the bone one millimeter daily for nearly two months. Shymeia's mom said the team explained what was happening every step of the way. "It wasn't all just medical terms," she said. And Shymeia added, "I really liked the nurses because they checked on me and helped me through a lot."
Dr. Schoenleber's team at Arkansas Children's specializes in limb deformities, leg lengthening procedures, and other complex issues that cause misalignment or abnormal bone growth. The leg lengthening procedure performed at Arkansas Children's likely spared Shymeia significant back, hip and leg pain later in life. Procedures like Shymeia's help children return to doing what they enjoy doing the most.