Controversial and Grueling Procedure Lengthens Limbs, Risks Lives

The bone is a unique tissue in that it can regenerate itself. So when bones are separated, new tissue grows to fill in the gap. The existing muscle, nerves and arteries stretch as well. Doctors are able to add as much as three inches to a patient's height per treatment session. And the surgery is followed by intensive physical therapy.

The price tag is steep — about $120,000 — and it's not covered by insurance.

If all of this sounds a little "out there" or even a bit barbaric, consider this: Forty years ago the thought of sucking the fat out of a woman's thighs wasn't exactly mainstream either.

"As we become familiar with something, it becomes more acceptable and more routine. … This is safe and effective and it can make a big difference in someone's life," said Rozbruch.

Although he continues to have reservations about offering the surgery for cosmetic reasons, Rozbruch said he does so because like it or not "if you don't do it, they will go somewhere else." And that somewhere else can be China, Egypt, Greece, Russia or Iran where the surgery can be had for as little as $20,000 but the clinical standards can be less than ideal.

For a window into why someone would undergo such a punishing procedure, you don't have to look any further than the Web site Make Me Taller.

It's a forum for men and women who call themselves "stature seekers." Many of them have had the surgery and others are seeking help. There are online diaries and pictures that give other seekers a peek at what they're in for. The site has 1,800 members and gets about a 100,000 hits a month, according to the site administrator who described himself as a 37-year-old, graphic designer from Brighton, England. He calls himself MMT and wished to remain anonymous for this story.

In a typical post, a new member describes what it's like to consider leg lengthening.

"I'm also worried about family and friends finding out about my surgery and what they'll say … will they think I'm pathetic or desperate for going through months of pain, enduring seemingly horrendous contraptions attached to my legs and spending thousands of dollars for a few inches? and how can I disappear for about 8 months or so without seeming suspicious? or explain why I'm suddenly 3 inches taller?"

In an e-mail exchange, MMT said that he had his surgery a year ago in China. Before the operation he was 5 foot 8. After the leg-lengthening procedure, he measures 5 foot 11.

"I decided it would be a good investment for my business career and I also simply wanted to be taller … but it is more involved than a straightforward cosmetic procedure — the intention is to alter one's life, rather than just to improve ones' appearance."

Shukla is 21 years now and a student at New Jersey Institute of Technology. Post-procedure he stands 5 foot 2. Shukla said the surgery is "by far" the most painful thing he has ever experienced but "as hard as it was, as painful as it was I would do it again."

Why?

"I know it seems superficial but before the surgery I think that's all people saw was how short I was. Now I think they look at me and say, well, he's not tall but he's not that short either. It really helps with my confidence."

And what's a few broken bones compared to that.

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