In last week’s post I described Dr. Ilizarov’s pioneering work using bicycle spokes connected to an external frame for stabilizing severely fractured bones. He could get limbs to heal that would otherwise face amputation. Although Ilizarov’s results were remarkable, his technique was too unconventional and his location too far from any recognized center of medical excellence for him to receive the recognition that he deserved.
This began to change when Russian high jumper Valeriy Brumel injured his leg in a motorcycle accident in 1965, a year after winning the Olympic gold medal in Toyko. Following three years of multiple and unsuccessful operations in Moscow, Brumel traveled to Kurgan to see Ilizarov, who got the bone to heal. The Olympian recovered sufficiently to high jump an awesome 6 feet 9 inches (2.06 m), which was seven inches off his world record but still quite respectable for somebody who had been hobbled by injury for years.
Ilizarov’s contributions still did not receive the recognition they deserved the despite the success he had achieved with Brumel and the fact that his center in the 1970’s grew to 24 operating rooms, 168 physicians, and around 1000 beds—by far the largest orthopedic center in the world.
Then in 1980, an Italian adventurer sought Ilizarov’s help after European doctors had given up hope of ever producing a sound leg for him. The mountaineer had broken his leg ten years previously and was left with an unhealed fracture and an inch of shortening. After Ilizarov achieved bone healing and lengthening, the grateful patient called Ilizarov “the Michelangelo of Orthopedics.” On return to Europe, the patient’s result astounded the Italian doctors, who then invited Ilizarov to speak at a European fracture conference in 1981. There Ilizarov gave three lectures. This was the first time he had presented his material outside the Soviet Union. When he finished he received a 10-minute standing ovation, and world-wide interest in his technique thereafter skyrocketed.
In subsequent years, others have refined Ilizarov’s external fixator hardware and technique. Now many limbs with unhealed fractures, shortened bones, or angular or rotational deformities are spared amputation thanks to that one patient who turned the wrench the wrong way. Anybody could do that, but it takes a genius to recognize the implications and appreciate that the wrong way might not always be so.
Next week: Stretching a Forearm into Shape.