Montreal Children's Hospital doctors use bone-stretching technique to give baby a normal life

A team of Montreal Children's Hospital doctors is using an old technique for bone stretching in a new way to give newborns with a severe birth defect a shot at a normal life.

When Ellie Mavie Duguay was born at the end of April, she couldn't breathe.

"I just heard the panic coming from the doctors from outside the operating room," said her father Daniel Duguay.

He later found out Ellie had a severe birth defect called Robin Sequence where an underdeveloped jaw bone causes infants to choke on their tongues.

He called the ordeal "heartbreaking and terrifying."

"If you lose your airway in these children, of course that's not compatible with life," said MUHC chief of plastic surgery Dr. Mirko Gilardino.

Last week, Gilardino performed a procedure on Ellie to increase the length of her jawbone called a mandibular distraction.

"If you cut a bone and leave those two pieces of bone together for just enough time and then start advancing them at a very slow rate, you trick the body into depositing more bone and stretching out the bone as well as the soft tissue envelope, for example, the skin on the face," said Gilardino.

First, the surgeon makes a cut to the jawbone careful not to damage the mandibular nerve. Then, a corkscrew-like pin is attached with a plate on either side of the break when twisted.

The pin pulls the two pieces of bone apart.

"We can see that the distraction has started," he said. "There's some space between the plates. This space would represent new bone being formed. But, you can see there's no evidence of air passing behind the tongue, there's no airway here. Now we look when the distraction is complete you can see an airway - this dark space represents air that's right behind the tongue"

Ellie Mavie is more than half-way through the approximately 10-day long process. Every five hours, her parents turn screws on the outside of her skin which lengthens her jawbone by 0.3 of a millimetre.

The pain is very minor and treatable with Tylenol.

"It's been maybe 7 or 8 days, it's not a lot, and we see already the difference," said her mother Karolann Duval-Belanger.

Once fully stretched, it'll take Ellie Mavie's jaw six to eight weeks to fully heal then the pins will be removed, and, Gilardino says, she'll grow and develop like a regular baby.

"Generally speaking, if this was their problem,this solves their problem," said the surgeon. 

Newsletters

The Breaking News Alert, insider info on promotions and contests, and special offers from our partners. Sign-up today!