WEST PALM BEACH — Palm Beach County is known for its magnificent weather, beautiful beaches and high-end shopping. Now, it can add world-class medical care to that list.
While some cities lay claim to medical meccas such as Rochester’s famed Mayo Clinic and Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, six years ago the Paley Advanced Limb Lengthening Institute took up residence at St. Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach.
Patients travel from all over the world for treatment at the Paley Institute because they’re saving limbs, thereby changing lives.
Meet Dr. Dror Paley, world-renowned pediatric orthopedic surgeon who – on a daily basis – corrects the mistakes of Mother Nature herself.
Bar none, Paley is recognized as the most experienced limb-lengthening and deformity-correction surgeon on the planet. He has developed more than 100 innovative surgical procedures that can either save limbs from certain amputation or reconstruct limb deficiencies in patients with congenital, developmental and post-traumatic limb disorders.
It’s a pretty safe bet that if a patient makes it to Paley, he or she has already been advised by other doctors to undergo an amputation.
“With amputation, function is very good, but the difference is most people would rather you save their leg,” says Paley. “It’s not that amputation is the wrong option, but a patient should be given the option.”
Because most doctors don’t have the skills to save the limb, they offer patients what they do know – amputation.
“Everyone knows how to do an amputation,” says Paley. “To do what I do takes a lot of skill. A lot of know-how. A lot more effort and a lot of training.
“Many of the things I treat are rare diseases. Many doctors cannot get the kind of training needed to do what we do and so they’re offering what they know how to do.”
Paley has developed a limb lengthening device – a fixator – that attaches to the bone. Each day the patient turns a screw a prescribed number of times. Turned daily, it lengthens and straightens, essentially regenerating the limb along with the soft tissue, bone, muscle, arteries and skin.
Rapidly Growing Field
After 28 years of practicing, he’s just getting started.
“The whole field is growing, changing. We’re really at the infancy,” says Paley.
One example is the fixator, which until now has exclusively been worn externally. In some cases, it’s now being managed internally.
“Now we put the device inside and use a remote to control lengthening,” says Paley. “It eliminates a lot of the old problems,” such as infections from open wounds patients live with while wearing the device.
In addition to the patients he sees in West Palm Beach, Paley spends one week a month globetrotting. To date, he’s treated patients in 75 countries. His ability to speak six different languages helps him in his mission.
Part of that mission is educating doctors to make treatment more widely available in other countries.
“Teaching is a big part of our mission,” says Paley. “A lot of our revenue goes toward that. If I train an army of doctors, I can treat patients into future generations and around the world.”
In 2010, the Paley Foundation was established to help fund the mission. The foundation helps qualifying families ease the burden of not only expensive medical care, but the cost of travel, food and lodging. The foundation covers the costs to train physicians and supports trips to under-served countries like Nicaragua and Haiti.
Seeing Lives Change
Paley often treats patients from infancy well into their teenage years. It’s not only the bones he gets to see grow. And he often gets to know members of the patient’s extended family.
His inbox is often filled with wedding invitations from patients’ families as well as videos of kids standing on two straight limbs playing sports.
“That’s the best feeling,” says Paley. “That’s the real payoff, seeing how you’ve changed these kids’ lives. They have no idea what the alternative would have been. That’s the most rewarding.”
A Boy Named Valentin
With great reward often comes great challenge. Even doctors aren’t immune.
One of the more challenging cases has been 6-year-old Valentin Brand. His mother, Martina Brand, was seven months pregnant with Valentin when she was told that her baby had Proximal Focal Femoral Deficiency.
Basically, one of his femurs stopped growing. By the time Valentin was born the femur was more than 50 percent shorter than the other.
Brand was referred to a specialist in Germany who was about to retire.
“He told me about Dr. Paley,” says Brand.
Brand was basically given two choices: stay in Germany and have Valentin lose his leg to an amputation, which would leave him dependent on a prosthetic limb for the rest of his life, or travel to America to have Dr. Paley save the hip and limb.
For Brand, a single parent, there was no choice.
“I had hope that one day he would stand on his own two legs without ending up with a broken back in a wheelchair sitting in a lot of pain,” says Brand.
Valentin had his first surgery – which lasted 10 hours – when he was three-and-a-half-years old. The surgery, known as the Superhip 2, completely reconstructed his hip.
At the same time, an external fixator was attached.
“He’s the first child to have hip reconstruction and lengthening together,” says Brand.
So far, Valentin has had one lengthening procedure. However, each lengthening requires two operations – one to put the fixator on and one to take it off.
Brand says that only a doctor with the expertise of Paley can pull it off. Critical decisions of the bone’s strength are made on the operating table. If Paley thinks the bone isn’t strong enough, he needs to decide there and then if it needs to be reinforced with a plate, rod or screw.
“He’s like Mozart,” says Brand. “Plenty of people can play Mozart, but can’t compose like Mozart.”
Valentin will face at least eight more surgeries before his 15th birthday. He will also require a heavy dose of daily physical therapy along the road.
“He’s a very happy child,” says Brand. “He takes it as it comes. In the beginning it was really hard, it’s painful to watch. I’m proud of my son. I love him.”
More surgeries mean more medical bills. And to make matters worse, Brand is unable to work while she and Valentin live here in the United States awaiting his next upcoming surgery.
“We’re both trying to deal with this difficult situation.”
It Takes A Village
They say it takes a village to raise a child, so while Brand keeps her son motivated, a group of angels helps to keep Brand strong.
Through a twist of fate, Brand came in contact with the American German Club of the Palm Beaches during the holiday season while the club was hosting a toy drive to raise funds for the Paley Foundation.
That’s when the club decided to take up Valentin’s cause.
The American German Club already supports about 16 charities annually, with a special interest in children’s charities.
According to American German Club president Kurt Freiter, the members of the club are doing as much as they can to help with Valentin’s medical bills and other expenses through donations and in-kind services, as well as trying to get the word out to others in the community in a position to help.
On May 16, the club will host a kickoff fund-raiser for Valentin at the American German Club of the Palm Beaches, 5111 Lantana Rd. in Lake Worth.
“We’re inviting the entire community to come join us for a family-fun day of ‘Brews and Barbecues’ in honor of Valentin,” says Freiter. “Hopefully, this will just be the beginning of getting the community behind the cause of this beautiful little boy.”
How You Can Help
THE PALEY FOUNDATION: To learn more about the Paley Foundation or to make a donation to the foundation, go online to thepaleyfoundation.org or email the foundation’s director, Caroline Eaton, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
VALENTIN BRAND: If you’d like to make a donation toward Valentin’s medical bills, call the American German Club of the Palm Beaches at (561) 967-6464. Also, consider attending the club’s fund-raising event, “Brews and Barbecues,” to be held May 16 on the club’s grounds at 5111 Lantana Rd. in Lake Worth.
MORE INFO: For questions or to learn more about The Paley Advanced Limb Lengthening Institute, call (561) 844-5255 or go online to paleyinstitute.org.