With saw and screwdriver, China doctor gives gift of height

Orthopaedic surgeon Bai Helong hikes up his trousers, places his foot on his desk and marks the spot just below his hairless knee where he cuts into the legs of patients who want to be taller.

Over the past 15 years, Bai has given the gift of height to about 3,000 patients aged 14 to 55 - Chinese, Americans, Germans, Japanese - about half of whom went through with surgery simply because they did not like being short.

"I'm something of an authority in this field," explains Bai, who uses a technique he developed himself at a modest private clinic in the suburbs of Shanghai.

He saws through both the tibia and the fibula below the knee - "without touching the bone marrow", he says - to "make the dream come true" of those who say they suffer psychologically from being short.

One week later, the bones begin to regenerate. Heavy braces made of nickel and titanium, each weighing about half a kilo (one pound), are screwed into the inner part of the patient's legs.

Every day for the following four months, Bai expands the braces to gradually stretch the leg.

"We need four months to get six to eight centimetres," or two to three inches, the surgeon says. After that, for four more months, the bones get stronger and patients are allowed to begin to walk.

Leg-lengthening was first performed in the 1950s in the former Soviet Union, and then in China, but with sometimes catastrophic results.

In the past, the leg was cut in three places, affecting the delicate bone marrow, and pins were used to steady the bone. In some cases, one leg was left shorter than the other and infections were common.

Today, Bai says, the procedure is safe. Instead of stretching the leg by 1.0-1.5 millimetres a day as in the past, he aims to progress half as fast.

"We've not had a single failure since 1995, and now it's not painful," insists the doctor, who charges 75,000 yuan (11,000 dollars) for the surgery.

So who is willing to endure such a procedure, which involves months of total immobilisation and a fair amount of discomfort?

"A small person can encounter all kinds of problems - in his or her marriage, family life, workplace," Bai says.

"The person feels inferior, and experiences psychological problems. I even have met people who wanted to kill themselves."

Dan Dan, a pretty 25-year-old Chinese woman who is studying Japanese, says she was unhappy when she stood 1.53 metres (five feet) tall. Four months after surgery at Bai's clinic, she is smiling - and six centimetres taller.

"I wanted to improve my self-image. I am very happy," says Dan Dan, grimacing as she walks at a snail's pace on crutches through the halls of the clinic, her body contorted.

"I hope that within a year, I will be able to walk normally. Running, that's another story," she says.

Only Dan Dan's mother is aware of what she is doing - her friends have no idea where she is.

"It seems pretty dangerous at the beginning - they cut through your bones, that is not really socially acceptable in China. It's not like getting your eyelids done," she explains, referring to a surgical procedure some Chinese women undergo to give them rounder, wider-looking eyes.

"I held off for a long time. I was really scared."

Wang Lijun has not told her friends where she is either and as a result, they no longer contact her.

That was a price the 30-year-old was willing to pay during 13 months of treatment, which began in 2008 and took her from 1.52 metres to 1.60 metres - a height gain easily achieved with a pair of stilettos.

"It was my secret. I told no one," says Wang, who now works on the administration side of Bai's clinic and says she can run and jump "almost like before".

"I had lost all of my self-confidence. I wanted a better life."

Beyond the loss of her social circle, Wang says there were other sacrifices to make - the months of painful treatment, the dark, vicious-looking scars on her legs. Her next step? A plastic surgeon, perhaps.

Is Bai a miracle worker or a sorcerer's apprentice with a screwdriver and a tire iron who is making a profit from the suffering of others?

The surgeon hits out at his critics, especially "those who oppose me without knowing what my work is all about".

But as is often the case in China, Bai may be working in a grey zone.

In 2006, the health ministry sent a notice to provincial authorities, ordering them to limit leg-lengthening operations to orthopaedic cases - excluding patients requesting surgery for purely cosmetic reasons.

The recommendation said the operation could only be performed on the disabled, whose legs were disfigured due to "congenital, accidental or disease-related conditions".

"It is forbidden to perform this surgery on people whose limbs are not deformed," the ministry said.

When asked about the notice, the ministry declined to comment on whether the recommendation was still in force. And Bai is still a member in good standing of China's Orthopaedics Association.

Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Aladdin is performed at the Tony Awards in New York in June
theatreBrit producer Lythgoe makes kids' musical comedy a Los Angeles hit
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Life and Style
ebookAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm actor was just 68
Arts and Entertainment
Preparations begin for Edinburgh Festival 2014
Edinburgh festivalAll the best shows to see at Edinburgh this year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    (Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

    Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

    £55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

    Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

    £60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

    Principle Geotechnical Engineer

    £55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

    Day In a Page

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices