YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – A Wellsville man who had been through a debilitating leg injury now is on his way to a full recovery thanks to a procedure that was performed for the first time in Youngstown.

Todd Sullivan was recently a part of the first leg-lengthening surgery of its kind in Youngstown. This was the use of PRECICE Lengthening Nail Osteotomies of his tibia and fibula.

Sullivan is on his own two feet, but his right leg is shorter than the other. In 2016, he suffered a gruesome injury where he broke his leg and it went through the skin. He was trying to cut down a tree branch at his father-in-law’s house.

“When it came down, it was actually going to knock me off backward. So I turn and I jumped, but I was at the top of a 20-foot ladder and broke my leg,” Sullivan said.

He was immediately rushed to UPMC Hospital in Pittsburgh. The wound became infected, so he had to wait a number of weeks before doing surgery. The surgery fused his ankle and lowered his leg by between two to three inches, and a rod was placed in his leg.

Sullivan had to wear a shoe with a large lift. An orthopedic surgeon in East Liverpool, James Shaer, told Todd about one of his former colleagues, Dr. John Sontich, who could help him start the process of leg limb lengthening.

Dr. Sontich completed surgery on Sullivan on June 1 when he took his previous rod out and placed a “PRECICE nail” rod within him. Sontich said this internal rod has a motor within it and that it is also a magnet. The rod is put in the center of the leg and the bone is cut around the rod. The rod then slowly lengthens the bone. The activation magnet device connects to the rod inside the leg and lengthens the leg one millimeter every day. Sontich said that Todd’s leg can grow up to 2.5-3 inches total in length.

Sontich said in previous years, patients have had to have external rods go through the leg from the outside. Now, patients like Todd are able to see results in a safer, less painful way.

“When we do these particular techniques, nobody knows the patient is getting their leg lengthened. It is not seen by the outside world,” Sontich said.

Sontich, who is from Poland, said that he has done approximately 30 of these surgeries and that he has worked with thousands of patients. Sontich said this surgery is usually for children with deformities.

Internal leg rod from lengthening surgery (2)
Courtesy: Dean Congemi
Internal leg rod from lengthening surgery (1)
Courtesy: Dean Congemi

Sontich said he learned the surgery technique in Siberia from former Russian orthopedic surgeon Dr. Gavril Illizarov in the 1990s. Sontich said Illizarov learned the technique that was named after him while he was working in the Iron Curtain. Illizarov passed away in 1992.

“His technique was the technique of cutting bone and slowly lengthening it and finding out that you can slowly length the whole leg,” Sontich said.

Twice a day, Sullivan uses a machine that he puts over the top of his leg. He presses a button and the leg extends 0.42 millimeters and 0.43 millimeters, meaning that he lengthens the leg a total of 0.85 millimeters per day. The goal is for Sullivan to lengthen the leg by 70 millimeters, meaning that the process will take 2.5 to 3 months to complete.

Todd Sullivan, X-ray leg photos
Courtesy: Todd Sullivan

“The surgery was five weeks ago. I didn’t use the machine for the first week. I’ve only been doing it for four weeks, and I’m literally at an inch,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan saw progress in his personal life right away. He said that he was able to put dress pants on for a wedding only days after the procedure.

Sullivan is grateful that Dr. Sontich was able to do the procedure and follow-up checkups with him at St. Elizabeth Health Center in Youngstown. Sontich is in Youngstown on Tuesdays, and he is at University Hospital in Cleveland once a week.

“It’s two hours for me to get to Cleveland. It’s traffic, everything else, parking there. I park in the doctor’s office at St Elizabeth’s Hospital in Youngstown. I walk in. It’s simple and much easier,” Sullivan said.

Dean Congemi, of Boardman, is an office room representative for Nuvasive and 4U Solutions, the company that provides Sontich’s equipment. Congemi gave massive praise to Sontich for his techniques.

“It has grown over the years because the more that you impact patients’ lives, you see the results and the things that Dr. Sontich has done,” Congemi said.

Sullivan is walking on crutches right now, but he is unable to put his full weight on the leg. He will eventually be able to put full weight on it when everything heals and the rod is removed. Sontich has set the goal for Sullivan to walk without a limp or pain or back pain. He anticipates removing the rod a year and a half from now.

Sullivan gave Dr. Sontich high praise for what he’s done to help him recover.

“This is what he does all the time. And like I said, I didn’t even know the option of this internal rod was in this area at all. So that, that’s awesome that that’s available.”