Can Growth Hormone Heighten Kids' Confidence?

Short in stature & confidence, two teens with high hopes take HGH. Did it work?

July 27, 2007 — -- Are you too short? Missing out on opportunities because tall people have an advantage? What if, when you were young, you could have done something about it? Today many kids try to.

Kaitlin Christopherson of Lake Jackson, Texas, was short. She was a 14-year-old eighth-grader in 2005, but was only as tall as most fourth-graders.

Kaitlin said she never realized she was short until people started making fun of her for it.

"They would tell me, 'Why don't you just grow,' you know, stuff like that," she said.

Kids Feel Bad, Parents Want to Help

Feeling left out by other eighth-graders, Kaitlin sought out younger girls. Her best friends were seventh-graders, and even they were taller than Kaitlin.

She said the hardest part of being short is just feeling odd.

"Feeling like you're different, like you're weird. … You know, I want to be normal. I want what everybody else wants."

Kaitlin's sister, Cassie, is two years younger but was several inches taller. When "20/20" offered Kaitlin a camera to record a video diary, she eagerly accepted and talked about how she hates being shorter than her little sister.

"I always feel like [my sister is] embarrassed of me. I feel like I embarrass people because I'm shorter than them," she said. "You know I feel like, my sister and I, even though we're only two years apart, can't have that relationship other sisters do because she might be embarrassed for her friends to see me."

Her unhappiness was hard on her mom, Amy. "It was very hard to see her crying."

When a child comes home crying, most parents want to do something about it.

"You do want to do whatever you can." Kaitlin's mom said.

Ryan Hersch of Long Island, N.Y., was short too.

"I wanna be tall like my friends," he said. "I don't care if I'm like an inch smaller. I don't want to be five inches smaller like I am now."

When we first met Ryan, he was 13 and just 4 feet 5 inches tall.

"When he was 2, he looked [like] he was 1. When he was 4, he looked like he was 2," said his mom, Jodi.

Will Shortness Hinder Life Opportunities?

Ryan's dad, Danny, said he fears Ryan might never grow past 5 feet.

"Certain opportunities won't come his way. … Out in the business world, dating girls."

He has a point. Studies show that tall men and women earn more money: A 6-foot-tall man earns on average almost $5,000 more than someone 5 feet 6 inches. In fact, each inch adds an average of almost $800 a year.

Height even matters in elections. Twenty-one of the last 26 presidential elections were won by the taller candidate. President Bush was an exception, but even he's 6 feet tall. Bill Clinton was taller than Bob Dole. The first President Bush was much taller than Michael Dukakis. Reagan, Nixon and Eisenhower were all taller than their opponents. William McKinley in 1896 was the last president who was shorter than average.

Parents fear that if their kids are short, they'll suffer.

Ryan's dad said, "The only reason Ryan's ever picked on — ever — is because of size."

At age 13, Ryan had worn the same size sneaker for four years, so his parents took him to endocrinologists — doctors who specialize in hormone production. Kaitlin's mom did the same.

The doctors' tests showed that Kaitlin and Ryan's bodies were not making enough growth hormone.

The proposed solution? Injections of HGH, human growth hormone.

HGH is talked about everywhere these days. You probably get e-mail pitches from scammers trying to convince you that HGH is a miracle cure to reverse aging or reduce fat.

Often they sell fake HGH, but the real hormone has potent effects. In adults, it builds muscle. That's why it's been linked to home-run hitters Jason Giambi, Jose Canseco and dozens of other athletes.

In kids, growth hormone is what makes them grow. So, for Ryan, whose body wasn't producing enough of it, giving him daily injections of growth hormone could help him grow.

Dr. Graeme Frank of Schneider's Children's Hospital in New Hyde Park, N.Y., said he thought Ryan would do very well on growth hormone, but Ryan's parents were worried. HGH can have side effects, and because the treatment is relatively new, the long-term risk is unknown.

Ryan's mom, Jodi, said, "I'm putting a drug into my child. Not knowing, is he going to be able to have children? Is this going to cause, God forbid, cancer?"

Ryan said, "I'm kind of scared because I don't like getting shots at all."

But Ryan and his parents finally put their fears aside and decided to go ahead. The drug company sent a nurse to teach Ryan's parents how to give him his medicine, and gave Ryan the first of what would be about 1,800 shots over five years.

Ryan's fears proved unwarranted. The needle was so small, it barely hurt.

Kaitlin gave herself the shots. To avoid bruising she was told spread them around — on her arms, legs and stomach. She said it didn't hurt much, but it was annoying to have to do it every day for years.

"I really want to grow," she said, "so if that's what I have to do to do it, then I will."

Shots Are Expensive, but Effective

The shots are expensive — at least $30,000 a year. The insurance company and the drug company paid about half the bill, so growth hormones cost the Hersches about $15,000 a year. Insurance picked up most of the tab for Kaitlin. This is a lot of money — years of shots — with possible side effects, and years of testing by doctors. But was it worth it?

We followed these kids for two years and tracked their progress.

Three months after Ryan started taking growth hormone, he went back to the doctor to be measured. Jodi and Danny Hersch had high hopes because Ryan's feet, which hadn't grown for four years, suddenly grew a size and a half.

"When he went up that size," Jodi said, "I bought him four pairs of sneakers, anything you want. It was like, 'Oh my God, it's working.'"

But then they heard that he hadn't grown much taller: only an inch over the last three months. You could feel Ryan's disappointment.

Frank consoled him. "It doesn't happen overnight, it's not like that movie 'Big,'" he said. "I'm hoping that we're going to do better."

And Kaitlin? She too had grown about an inch. Kaitlin was thrilled to hear that.

Once they know the growth hormone is working, doctors usually increase the dose. Kaitlin's physician, Leske Karaviti of Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, decided to increase the dose 30 percent. Within three weeks, though, that brought side effects — nausea and daily headaches that racked her with pain.

"It scared me," Kaitlin said. "I was, you know, scared that it had triggered a brain tumor or cancer."

She stopped taking the shots and went back to the hospital for tests. Fortunately no problems turned up, and reducing the dose kept the headaches in check. Three months later, she'd grown two more inches.

"Kids at school tell me that I look taller, and you know I think part of it is because of the way I carry myself now, because I'm happy," Kaitlin said.

Yet weeks later she was unhappy. She told her video diary that, despite her growth, kids still treated her like a little kid.

"They were all going to go to a shaving cream party and a pool party and they didn't even ask me to go. … It's really hard for me because people in my grade can really be judgmental."

And she was worried about high school, just months away at the time.

"I'm scared that I'm not gonna have any friends in high school," she told her diary, wiping tears from her eyes.

Yet once high school began, Kaitlin was happy again.

"That extra few inches made me more sure of myself," she said.

Or maybe she just grew older and wiser?

"I think the extra inches had a little bit to do with it, too," she said.

Is the Issue Height or Just Normal Teen Growing Pains?

Perhaps, but it makes some people wonder: Is this really about height, or just normal teenage mood swings? Some researchers say height matters less than people think.

David Sandberg of the State University of New York at Buffalo co-authored a study of height and popularity in middle school kids.

"Height, whether very tall, very short or average, [is] unrelated to how likeable you are," Sandberg said.

The kids in Sandberg's study named other children who they thought were good leaders. I would have thought they'd pick taller people, but they didn't. The same was true for children they thought got picked on, were often left out or sad. None of those kids were more likely to be short.

It's a reason Sandberg and others, like Dr. Jeffrey Bishop, from the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth, suspect that growth hormone treatment is becoming overused.

"Is it their height?" Bishop asked about the young people's unhappiness. "Or is it just the normal growing up stuff?"

Bishop says parents who bring otherwise healthy kids to a doctor to help them grow risk doing more harm than good. He thinks going to a doctor can make the child feel like something is seriously wrong with them.

"Suddenly you're short and that means you're broken," he said. "And now we need to find a way to fix you."

Both doctors said parents ought to talk to their kids about their unhappiness, and reassure them that almost everyone is teased about something. Learning to deal with that teasing will make a short child a stronger adult.

"They can develop assertiveness skills that much older and taller children will never develop," Sandberg said.

I asked Kaitlin's mom, Amy, whether her daughter's feelings might just be the roller coaster of childhood.

"She's a drama queen, so probably so," she said. "But I also know that if we didn't do anything, then later on in life, you know, it would be too late to go back."

Families Feel They Did the Right Thing

Both the families we followed think they did the right thing. Eight months after Ryan began the shots, he was growing faster. Schneider hospital's Frank told them it was a huge increase in height.

Ryan's mom was relieved.

"Thank God, because you have a little self-doubt. … 'My poor baby's bruised all over his body.' Now it's worth it. We don't care," she said, laughing.

When our first report aired in October 2005, Ryan was just more than 5 feet tall —a gain of seven inches over two years. He would keep taking the daily shots through the growth spurt of puberty. By then he could hit 5 foot 6, maybe five inches taller than he would have been.

I asked Ryan what he hoped for when he started taking the growth hormones.

"I hoped that I would be at least 6 feet, but now I know that's never going to happen," he said.

Did he think he would immediately start to grow up, really fast?

At first, he said no, but he then admitted with a laugh, "Well, actually, yeah, I kind of did."

Kaitlin had grown about five inches. But when she returned to her doctor recently for a checkup, she was no longer sure she wanted to keep giving herself the shots. The doctor asked her whether she wanted to continue, and after some indecision, she decided to stop.

After a year on growth hormone, Kaitlin topped out at just under 5 feet tall.

I asked her whether the nasty headaches and giving herself shots was worth it.

"All that is temporary," she said. "But the result is — it lasts a lifetime."

So, has she caught up to her younger sister?

No. Kaitlin said, "She grew too." Her little sister is still half a foot taller.

At 16 years old, Kaitlin had found success riding horses and playing on her high school golf team. She once thought her career dreams of becoming a lawyer or an actress would be stymied because she was too short, but today she says she can achieve her dreams.

Was it the extra growth or just learning to handle the teasing?

"It also kind of made me feel like I have something to prove," Kaitlin said.

"That might make you more likely to succeed," I told her.

"It will," she said.

Maybe Sandberg and Bishop make a good point that being short and taking some hard knocks because of it can actually make you stronger.

Two Years Later

It's been two years since "20/20" first ran this story, and we recently checked in with both kids. Ryan is now almost 16 years old and is now 5 feet 6 inches — just as tall as his father. He can continue to take HGH shots for another year, at which point, his doctor estimates, he may top out at 5 feet 9 inches. Ryan's parents will have spent more than $75,000 of their own money by then, but they say that they still believe it is money well spent.

Kaitlin will soon turn 18, but hasn't grown at all since she stopped taking growth hormone. She's topped out at 4 foot 11 inches, and says that she does sometimes wish she'd continued taking the drug.

On the other hand, she just attended her junior prom with a friend who's over 6 feet tall, and she is considering a career in medicine. She feels more strongly than ever that her struggles with her height have helped her to become the top student she is today.

Portions of this report originally aired on Oct. 28, 2005.