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.

News
people Biographer says cinema’s enduring sex symbol led a secret troubled life
News
newsGlobal index has ranked the quality of life for OAPs - but the UK didn't even make it into the top 10
News
people

Kirstie Allsopp has waded into the female fertility debate again

News
In 2006, Pluto was reclassified as a 'dwarf planet'
scienceBut will it be reinstated?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
people
News
Researchers say a diet of fatty foods could impede smell abilities
scienceMeasuring the sense may predict a person's lifespan
Sport
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
News
Gillian Anderson was paid less than her male co-star David Duchovny for three years while she was in the The X-Files until she protested and was given the same salary
people

Gillian Anderson lays into gender disparity in Hollywood

Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Life and Style
fashionThe Secret Angels all take home huge sums - but who earns the most?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
News
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsA Welsh town has changed its name - and a prize if you can notice how
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

    KS1 and KS2 Primary NQT Job in Lancaster Area

    £85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education is urgently...

    DT Teacher - Resistant Materials

    £33000 - £34000 per annum: Randstad Education Group: Technology Teacher (Resis...

    Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped Commission, 1st yr OTE £30-£40k : SThree:...

    Middleware Support Analyst

    £45000 - £50000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

    Day In a Page

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?