Pretoria - When the advanced TL-HEX, a first-of-its-kind piece of medical equipment, was combined with world-class skill and determination and five hours of groundbreaking surgery at Netcare Unitas Hospital in Centurion, it changed the shape of 25-year-old Trevor Mntungwa’s legs and changed his life.
The KwaZulu-Natal International Organisation of the Sword of the Spirit community outreach worker has, for years, walked for anything up to 10km a day in Welbedacht West in Chatsworth, where he walks street after street and from door to door, helping to uplift the lives of others.
Dr Franz Birkholtz with equipment used in the type of reconstructive surgery he performed on Trevor Mntungwa. Picture: Etienne Creux. Credit: Etienne Creux
For most of his life he has had difficulty moving around and doing the mundane tasks normally taken for granted, and as he grew older even walking around, getting into and out of the bath and getting dressed became problematic.
Mntungwa had Blount’s disease, a growth disorder of the shinbone that causes a severe inward angling of the legs from just below the knees, which has also prevented him from engaging in social activities like playing soccer and riding a bicycle.
“When they contacted me and I saw the video of his condition I knew I had to help him, so I got service providers together and convinced them to participate in correcting his condition for free,” Centurion orthopaedic surgeon Dr Franz Birkholtz said yesterday.
The 38-year-old specialist surgeon, whose sub-speciality is limb reconstruction and external fixation and trauma, is considered a world authority in the field of circular fixators.
His practice is a centre of excellence based at the Centurion Lifestyle Management Park where he and his team specialise in fixing broken bones, severe bone infections, correcting deformities, salvaging limbs to prevent amputations and lengthening legs, elbows and hands, among others.
“I brought in a multidisciplinary team which includes the X-ray department, anaesthetists, hospital staff, the people who sell the device and psychologists,” Birkholtz said.
On December 5, after a two-month telephone consultation process, Mntungwa arrived at Unitas, and two days later he was taken to theatre for a five-hour procedure which used the circular hexapod fixator, which is the latest advanced external fixation device and is dubbed the TL-HEX.
“Through a 2cm cut on the skin we carefully cut through Trevor’s bone, then gradually straightened his legs using the three-dimensional fixators,” the surgeon explained.
The procedure had been complicated, he said, more so because the patient was 25 years old and his bones had become more rigid and difficult to control.
Russian Dr Alexander Cherkashin, credited with the design of the latest advancements in circular fixator technology, assisted in the procedure, which used computer software to accurately give the calculations for the adjustments which made Mntungwa’s legs straight.
Coinciding with the week in which the surgery was done was a training session for surgeons from all over the world, who are regularly hosted by Birkholtz and his team. They come to learn about advanced limb reconstruction techniques.
Birkholtz says of the training: “By empowering more surgeons to become skilled in limb reconstruction many more patients could benefit from this technology.”
Mntungwa was discharged from the hospital last on Thursday week, and he returned home with both legs – straight from the operation –still in frames.
He will wear the frames for another six months.
The doctor said: “He will struggle a bit. There is pain because he was cut through the bone, but with time and healing he will manage.”
Occupational therapists and physiotherapists gave Mntungwa extensive lessons to equip him with the skills necessary to handle life with the frames.
Arrangements that he go for X-rays near his home town were made and these will be communicated to Birkholtz, who will assess them and give instructions accordingly.
After six months he would come back to Centurion, and be evaluated, the doctor said, adding: “We expect that his legs will be totally straight by then and the frames will be replaced with removable splints.”
Mntungwa’s quality of life had been changed for ever, said the surgeon, in a process stemming from the team’s mission to give back to the community, to donate time to making a difference.