A Mater specialist orthopaedic surgeon has given a Logan schoolgirl born with dwarfism the opportunity to fulfil her dream of competing at the World Dwarf Games in Germany next month.

Ten-year-old Marisela Hebson was born with achondroplasia, the most common type of short-limbed dwarfism.

She has endured multiple excruciating medical procedures to straighten her legs, which forced her to spend months in a wheelchair and to have to learn to walk again. However, this July Marisela will compete in sports including swimming, soccer, athletics, and basketball at the largest international sporting event held exclusively for athletes with dwarfism.

Mater Private Hospital Brisbane orthopaedic surgeon Dr Ivan Astori began the process of straighten Marisela’s limbs in 2016 after she presented with extreme bowed legs, a common condition in children with dwarfism.

In the first of more than 10 procedures to strengthen Marisela’s legs over three years, Dr Astori used a surgical technique – Hemiepiphysiodesis – also known as guided growth, to gradually correct her limb deformity.

“Her pain was extreme in her knees. We were able to modulate the growth around her knees, allowing her own growth to straighten her legs. As she grew her legs straightened over time,” Dr Astori said.

In 2019, Dr Astori performed an osteotomy, a surgical procedure which involves cutting bones to reshape and realign Marisela’s ankles. 

“For many weeks Marisela had plasters on each of her legs from her knees to her ankles,” he said.

Dr Astori, who also performs surgeries at Mater Private Hospital Redland, said he was not surprised by Marisela’s sporting achievements.

“I am very proud of her, she’s an absolute go-getter,” he said.

“Without the surgeries she would have struggled with pain and her disability would have worsened.”

Marisela’s parents, Marissa and David Hebson, said they are in awe of the determination shown by their daughter, who was born six weeks early in 2012 at Mater Private Hospital Redland.

Due to her prematurity and kidney issues, Marisela spent several weeks in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at South Brisbane’s Mater Mothers’ Hospital.

Zel in hospital after one of many procedures to straighten her legs
Zel in hospital after one of many procedures to straighten her legs

It was during the first five years of Marisela’s life that she developed severe leg bowing, resulting in a major physical deformity which led to her constantly falling over and being in pain.

Mrs Hebson thanked Dr Astori for helping to ‘correct’ Marisela’s legs.

“His expertise has given Marisela a chance to live life like other children her age,” she said.

“Marisela had eight plate surgeries to slowly straighten her legs as she naturally and slowly grew.

“She spent many months in a wheelchair and had to learn to walk again on her newly straightened and pain-free legs. 

“Her surgery was the best decision we ever made and we will be forever grateful for Dr Astori.

“Her pain was gone almost immediately after the first operation and she is now competing on the world stage on two fully functioning legs!”

She said her daughter’s love and skill of sport “really took off” when she started at Calvary Christian College at Carbrook.

“Calvary Christian College provided her with sporting opportunities that she would never have before been awarded,” she said.

“Turns out she was pretty good! It was at her school swimming carnival last year that she came second place. She competed against average height students up to twice her size and that’s when we realised she could swim fast!”

Mrs Hebson revealed she had “no idea” her daughter had dwarfism until one week after bringing her home from hospital.

“It was during a regular body check that the doctors noticed her limited elbow extension, a common characteristic of achondroplasia,” Mrs Hebson said.

“Bloods were sent off for genetic testing and the results showed a FGFR3 gene alteration or mutation at the exact time of conception, resulting in achondroplasia. 

“My family and I were a wreck. Achondroplasia was so foreign to us. I don’t think I’d ever seen a person with dwarfism with my own eyes.

“Together we suffered through the initial shock and grieved for what we ‘thought’ would be. It wasn’t long until we saw our gorgeous, happy and thriving girl who makes us all, including her younger twin brothers, so happy.”

Despite many hospital admissions and surgeries, Mrs Hebson said Marisela was the “best baby”.

“She was so calm, easy and funny from such a young age.  She really tricked me into thinking babies were easy!,” Mrs Hebson laughed.

“Our adoration and love for her took over and the pain melted away.”

Mrs Hebson said her family celebrate people’s differences because of Marisela.

“We approach people with a disability with not just a smile but with a handshake and conversation,” she said.

“We celebrate people’s beautiful differences and appreciate them more for it. I can almost say for certain, that is all thanks to Marisela.  Showing us the reality of the world without the rose-coloured glasses.”

This year, the 2023 World Dwarf Games will be held at the prestigious German Sport University Cologne (GSU), from 28 July to 5 August, where up to 25 countries will be represented.

Marisela is fundraising to help her (and her mum) get to Germany, including flights, accommodation, game registration and uniforms.

To help donate, visit Marisela Hebson – Australian Sports Foundation (asf.org.au)

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