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Uneven Ground: St. Ansgar teen walking on even legs thanks to magnetic technology

Appointments at Mayo Clinic have become a regular thing for Elsa Jensen and her family.

“We’ve had a million, and a million more to come,” said Jensen’s mom, Paige Warrington.

They make the trek from St. Ansgar, Iowa, often to meet with specialists. But walking on two even legs, until recently, wasn’t so regular.

The journey here, for Jensen, started at birth. At 13 months old, she broke a wrist. Soon after, she broke a tibia.

The toddler with bones like glass was diagnosed with Osteogenesis Imperfecta at two years old.

"We call it the brittle bone disease. It’s where I can simply fall and just break any bone,” Jensen said.

37 bones over her 14 years, to be precise, including her right femur a half dozen times. It eventually slowed the growth in her right leg, leaving Jensen standing on uneven ground.

"Before, it was very noticeable. I would walk down the hallway with a waddle,” she said.

With one leg three inches shorter than the other, Jensen used crutches, or a lifted shoe to get around. Until last summer, when she got a surgery that would change her life.

"The magnets inside the rod, they pulled apart very slowly,” she said. “It was a little uncomfortable but it didn’t hurt."

Dr. Andrew Sems is a specialist with Mayo Clinic’s Limb Lengthening and Regeneration Clinic.

He was part of a team that placed a magnetic rod just like this in Elsa Jensen’s leg.

"In our initial films, even though we have her standing on a large block, her pelvis is quite oblique. And that can create back pain and wear on the spine,” said Dr. Sems, pointing to an off-kilter x-ray of Jensen’s legs.

Each day, she’d take a magnet attached to a motor, and for two minutes, it would slowly pull her leg apart.

"It’s applied and you hold it over the leg. So if we were lengthening your left leg say, we would hold it directly on your leg and it would spin and the rod, which would be inside your leg would be affected and the rod would telescope and lengthen,” Dr. Sems said.

The magnet would pull her leg about a millimeter per day, adding nearly three inches of length over a little more than two months.

It all lead to a moment in early January, where Jensen walked across her living room floor with no crutches, no special shoe, for the first time.

"It was amazing to see her just kind of stand there and take a breath, and then just walk on even legs. I was extremely proud,” Warrington said.

"It’s been hard, but it’s been worth it just to have even legs at the end,” said Jensen.

Dr. Peter Tebben, who works with Elsa to monitor her bone density, is part of the process, too.

"At Mayo, one of the things we try and do it have a team approach. And that extends to the orthopedic surgeons as well,” Dr. Tebbens said.

Not just surgeons – but Jensen – who, at 14-years-old, is taking charge of her own health.

"So would you do it all over again if you had the choice?” asked Dr. Tebbens during a routine checkup.

"Yeah, I would do it again,” Jensen said. “To get even legs."

After nearly 40 broken bones, 100 nights in the hospital, and 28 surgeries, she’s wiser than her years.

"Everything happens for a reason, if you don’t really know the reason now,” she said; a level-headed and now level-legged teen.

Elsa will have to have a rod in her leg for the rest of her life, but she did get some good news while we were in her bone density appointment with her.

The density in her hip, they measured, is in the normal range for girls her age, indicating that her density treatments are working fine.


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