Greenwich teen’s right leg was too short. A Yale surgeon helped make it longer

Photo of Ed Stannard

Brady Lisjak is a 15-year-old from Greenwich who loves playing hockey and lacrosse, but he was hampered by a rare disorder called Ollier disease, which caused his right leg to be 2.5 inches shorter than his left.

The disease causes non-cancerous growths, known as enchondromas, to form on the bone, leading to lack of growth.

Thanks to a surgical procedure performed by Dr. David Frumberg of Yale New Haven Hospital, Brady is back playing sports.

“Right now I’m playing lacrosse, and a few months ago in the winter I was playing hockey,” Brady, a freshman at Greenwich High School, said. He’s 5 feet, 3 inches tall and still growing.

Brady was 13 when he underwent the procedure. He said while he walked with a limp, as he got older the difference in the lengths of his legs became more obvious.

“When I was 7, 8, 9, 10, I couldn’t really tell at all,” he said. “But when I got to like 12, 13 … I started to notice it.” He said, “the whole right side of my body would be shrugged down.”

Brady’s father, Mike Lisjak, said, “His hips were tilted, which pushed his shoulders forward, which hurt his posture.” It was obvious when Brady caddied, as well. “We did X-rays for quite a while, a year, year-and-a-half, before we did the surgery,” Lisjak said.

Frumberg sees patients of all ages, “everything from prenatal consultation to geriatrics,” he said. His patients may be born with legs of different lengths, affected by cancer or have suffered trauma to a growth plate. “The longest I’ve ever lengthened anything is 7 [centimeters],” he said.

“Limb lengthening is a thing that for congenital problems can be life-changing because you can avoid amputation,” Frumberg said.

“The problem with lengthening is you’ve got to stretch everything: muscles, blood vessels, tendons, nerves,” he said. That’s where much of the pain comes from. “Nerves tend to get angry. There’s a lot of [physical therapy] involved,” he said.

Before the lengthening rod was available, patients would have had to use a device known as an external fixator, which would increase the length of the leg. But the apparatus can be difficult for a child to adjust to psychologically, Frumberg said.

More severe limb differences would need amputation, and children would have to wear a prosthesis because there were no techniques to save the limb, he said.

Frumberg, co-director of the Yale Limb Restoration and Lengthening Program, is one of just a few surgeons in the region who does the procedure Brady underwent. He uses a rod inserted into the bone that is gradually lengthened by use of a magnetic motor. The femur is cut in two and the space between the two segments gradually increases. New bone grows to fill the gap.

Frumberg said Brady’s right leg will grow more slowly than his left until he reaches full height at age 16, but he calculated how tall Brady would be as an adult and adjusted for the difference.

“It sounds like it would hurt, but it really does not,” Frumberg said. Brady would hold a magnet up to a mark on his leg, which started the gears spinning inside the rod, causing it to lengthen. “Instead of having an apparatus outside your leg, it’s implanted, so it’s so much easier and a better experience for him,” Frumberg said.

Brady did the procedure three times a day for a total of seven minutes, Frumberg said, causing his leg to lengthen 1 millimeter per day. There are 25.4 millimeters to an inch, and 63.5 mm to 2.5 inches.

“It didn’t really feel like anything when it was going on because it was so little at a time,” Brady said.

Brady’s procedure had to be delayed two months until June 2020 because of the pandemic, but that meant he could start spending a lot of time in the pool. “It helped me to float around and quite easily move my leg,” Brady said. He said it was much easier than walking on the ground.

“He was able to hit the pool right away and build up his strength, and he was playing at the end of August, which is pretty incredible,” Lisjak said. Brady played on a travel hockey team.

Lisjak said he had shattered his ankle playing hockey and “I was on crutches right away,” which helped Brady “realize he was going to be able to get around and not be laid up in bed,” he said.

Brady said he didn’t fear the surgery as much as he did his first COVID test. “I was definitely more scared of that than the surgery,” he said. “I knew I was going to be asleep so I wouldn’t know.”

Brady was also devoted to his physical therapy. “I just wanted to get back to normal again, so when I went to PT my physical therapist gave me the activities and workouts I would need to do and I would do them three times a day, morning, noon and night,” he said.

His therapy consisted of walking on treadmills, and doing lunges and squats, he said.

The rod has been removed from his leg.

“He’s 100 percent and he’s active in his high school and he’s definitely inspired his family, for sure,” Lisjak said. “We’re super-proud of him.”; 203-680-9382

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that external fixator devices were the most common means of lengthening legs before the internal rod was developed. More severe limb differences would need amputation.