Born with a deformed left leg, Sonn was forced to walk on the top of his foot, a painful condition that meant getting around was tough.
The solution, doctors decided, was to amputate and fit him with a prosthetic.
But losing a limb, even a deformed one, is no small obstacle for a child to overcome.
So Shriners Hospital for Children in Greenville, where the 14-year-old Haitian boy is being treated, gave him something to remember it by – a detailed mold of his left foot.
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“He loves it. And he loves to show it to people,” said Lacey Kaiser, whose Greenville family is hosting Sonn through Childspring International.
“I didn’t know how he would feel when he woke up and saw that his foot was gone,” she told The Greenville News. “But I think it has helped him a lot psychologically to not grieve the loss of that foot.”
Sonn was born with a rare condition called Type IV tibial dysplasia, said Dr. David E. Westberry, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Shriners. It affects the leg bone, ankle joint and foot, he said, leaving the leg bone too short and the ankle joint abnormal.
“In Sonn’s case, the foot was rotated and because of this he was forced to walk on the top of his foot,” he said. “This results in a limp, painful walking, and difficulty with shoe wear.”
Childspring International arranges life-changing surgeries for children in developing countries, where medical care is limited and hard to obtain.
During their time in the U.S., the children stay with host families. Sonn is the sixth child that Kaiser and her husband, Gregg, have hosted.
Loss of a limb
Though his amputation surgery was Aug. 8, he'll remain with the Kaisers until his residual limb heals and he can be fitted with a prosthetic foot at Shriners, probably to November, she said.
Because Kaiser knew that people can grieve the loss of a limb, she worried about how Sonn would handle it.
But he’s done well, she said, and the foot mold is one of the reasons.
“It really is amazing,” she said. “The creases, the folds, the toe nails. It looks just like his foot.”
Child life specialist Frances Fischer said the foot molds, which resemble marble sculptures, were started as a way for children facing amputation to have some closure.
“They were born with this foot and now it’s going to be gone … and then they will be fitted with a prosthesis and have a totally different life, so to speak,” she said. “It’s a traumatic experience for these kids.”
Some children are born without a tibia to support a foot, she said, while others are born with small, deformed feet, club foot or only two toes. Like Sonn, amputation is their best hope.
And the foot molds provide psychological benefits that help them process it all, Fischer said.
Though many of them will have a better life with a prosthesis, allowing them to play sports, ride a bike, swim with their friends like they weren’t able to do before, amputation can still be a gut-wrenching decision for their parents, she said.
The mold allows them to show their children when they get older why it was necessary.
“A lot of our children have amputations at a very young age, for various reasons, and won’t remember their lives before amputation,” she said. “Parents can show them, especially if the foot is very deformed, (that it) wouldn’t have sustained you as you grew.”
A better option
The first molds made of plaster were just an impression of the sole, Fischer said. Then she found a process that captures the whole foot.
It involves placing the child’s foot in a mixture called alginate, which has the consistency of oatmeal, she said. After a few minutes of firming, it’s the consistency of rubber and the foot is removed.
Then she fills the mold with Liquid Stone, which hardens in about an hour.
The finished product is so detailed that it shows the lines on the bottom of the feet, wrinkles, toes and toe nails, arches and in the case of one 18-year-old, hair, she said.
Sonn’s mold even captured his callouses.
So far, Fischer said, as many as 40 molds have been made and no parent has ever turned down the opportunity.
“A lot of children want to see that mold when they get back from surgery,” she said. “And others always have it to see … how far you’ve come.”
Kaiser, a mother of four who home-schools the two youngest children, said she thinks Sonn’s parents will appreciate being able to see and touch the mold to remember what he had to deal with too.
Meanwhile, she said, he’s doing great and is hopeful he'll be able to get around better with his prosthesis.
“It’s a long wait between the time of surgery and the time he gets his prosthesis and having this mold helped him,” she said. “And in time, it will also be beneficial for him to remember why he had to have the surgery done.”