World's Smallest Investigator Takes on Crime

PHOTO: Ryan Berger, an assistant detective in Santa Ana California, has Osteogenesis Imperfecta, otherwise known as Brittle Bones Disease.PlayCourtesy of Sgt. Troy Guidry
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Being three-feet-2-inches tall doesn't stop Ryan Berger, 34, from taking on crime in Santa Ana, Calif. Though he lives with a rare genetic disorder that leaves his bones brittle and requires him to use a motorized wheel chair, Berger has followed in his father's footsteps by joining local law enforcement.

Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a genetic disorder affecting the bones and connective tissue, prevents Berger from physically making arrests, but he does everything else an assistant detective might do -- from questioning suspects to testifying in court.

Berger hails from a "cop family." His father John Berger is a retired detective for the Santa Ana Police Department and his brother, Mark Berger, currently works with the Anaheim PD. Though he didn't originally intend to get into law enforcement (he studied computer science), Ryan Berger has been drawn into the family business.

"It keeps me off the streets and out of trouble," Berger jokes.

Though he cannot go out into the field because of his condition, Berger assists detectives by pulling together cases, interviewing victims and suspects, and dealing with other aspects of criminal investigation.

The Santa Ana PD made a few adjustments to office equipment to accommodate Berger, but otherwise, he does "everything most able-bodied people can do," says his supervisor Sgt. Troy Guidry. "Mentally is where he's so tough -- his attitude with life. That's why he fits in so well," Guidry adds.

Life With Brittle Bones

Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI), also known as brittle bone disease, affects anywhere from 25,000 to 50,000 Americans, though the majority of cases are not as severe as Berger's. More than half the cases of are the mild type 1, which includes bone fragility, slightly shorter stature and joints that are prone to dislocating, according to the Osteogenesis Imperfecta Foundation. Many cases are so mild as to go undiagnosed. For all types, the disease is characterized by a decrease in the body's production of collagen, which leads to varying levels of fragile bones, joint looseness, and other complications.

For those like Berger, who have type 3, symptoms are more severe and include a very small stature, incredibly fragile bones, and discoloration of the teeth.

"When I was a kid, sneezing or a hiccup, if I was bumped into or startled, I would fracture a bone," he says. "Back then there was nothing the doctor's could do except wrap me up in gauze. They couldn't even put a cast because the weight of the cast would make the fracture worse."

These days, children with OI are often given the osteoporosis drug Fosamax or other bisphosphonate drugs that help up their bone density and reduce the risk of fracture by as much as 50 percent, says Dr. Jay Shapiro, director of the Bone and Osteogenesis Imperfecta Program at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.

This treatment came too late for Berger, however, as he was out of puberty by the time the treatment began being used in the early 1990s. After puberty, those with OI are much less prone to fracture and do not respond as well to bisphosphonate drugs. Berger, fortunately, hasn't had a fracture in a couple years while he's worked for the Santa Ana PD.

Many patients with type 3 have a shortened life expectancy; either from lung problems or to disability-related accidents, says Shapiro.

For patients like Berger, avoiding "silly accidents" such as driving a car or getting tipped out of their wheelchair in a busy hallway is key, says Shapiro.

But Berger says that the only problem he has had with the work is that people often mistake him for a woman over the phone because of his high-pitched voice.

"Then when they come in to the station they see that I'm a man and a short-statured man, so they're a bit surprised, but once I start talking to them they relax," he says.