Cutting-edge device helps local girl recover from leg fracture, shorter limb

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14-year old Sierra Johnson is passionate about cheer and tumbling, two loves that temporarily were prohibited.

“That was my worry the whole time, that through every single surgery I would not be able to cheer, I would not be able to tumble,” Johnson said.

Because five years ago, Sierra’s life changed while tumbling, with a painful incident that began a tumultuous journey.

“They sent me straight to the hospital from there,” Johnson said. “They told me I had a fracture. That I had to go ahead and get right into surgery.” 

Navonne Johnson, Sierra’s mother, remembers the moment vividly, “I’m like oh my gosh. She’s crying and frantic, and I’m like what’s going on? What does this look like and what does this mean?” 

Multiple surgeries ensued, and the injury eventually resulted in one of Sierra’s legs 44 millimeters shorter in length than the other.

“The right leg was shorter than my left leg because I broke by femur through the growth plate in my right leg,” Johnson said. “So that caused my right leg to stop growing.”

As the journey continued last year, the Johnsons then consulted with Dr. Brad Culotta, a Pediatric Orthopaedic Surgeon with the Baton Rouge Orthopaedic Clinic and Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital, who suggested a new option.

Dr. Brad Culotta described the device and procedure: “A rod which houses a magnet, and it’s surgically implanted at the time of the surgery inside the center of the thigh bone or shin bone, so the bone is surgically cut. The rod is placed internal to the bone. And then the patient goes home, and over a series of time, they use an external device to use outside of the leg. That external device houses a magnet which controls this magnet, and allows this rod to telescope or lengthen slowly at about a millimeter per day to let the leg grow that way.”

For Navonne Johnson, it was a win-win, “Knowing that there was something innovative, that was kinda new and cutting edge. I’m like let’s try that. Her recovery time was better, further down the road the lack of injury, knowing that we’re not going to have to come back 10-15 years later with other injuries, arthritis, other problems, back issues, we were just crossing off the boxes, like yes this is the way to go.”  

Last July, Dr. Culotta implanted the rod, which over time has successfully extended Sierra’s bone and leg to equal length.

“I can’t feel it, so I don’t even think about it honestly,” Johnson said.

Dr. Brad Culotta added, “I think it’s a fantastic combination of technology with our orthopaedic principles, which allow us to foster new ideas in our field about how can we get to the same result with a more refined technique and have a fantastic outcome, and I think there’s going to be more stuff like this in the future.” 

What made a trying time of healing a bit harder was last August’s flooding, when the Johnson’s family home also took on water.

“I could not walk, and it hurt to walk,” Johnson said. “It hurt to put my foot down. It was difficult because I did not have crutches. I was very timid with them, and they flooded in the flood. They were left at the house, so i had to walk with a walker up two steps almost every day.” 

But successfully navigating that hardship as well, Sierra is now scheduled to have the rod removed this summer and return to normal activity like her beloved cheering and tumbling. 

“Anything she enjoys doing, she’s welcomed to do,” Dr. Culotta said. “Her leg is strong, sturdy and level and should stay that way long term. So she’s free to enjoy activities without restriction.”

Navonne Johnson added, “She’s really a fighter. Just really seeing her out there doing the thing she loves to do is going to be rewarding for sure.”

And for Sierra Johnson, she’s hoping this will be her final procedure, “After this surgery I have coming up, I pray that I don’t have to get any more. I can’t say that because I’m very injured-prone, but I just pray that everything will go smoothly, and I won’t have to do anything else.” 

 

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