These images show a patient dubbed the ‘Folding Man’ who is now able to stand straight again after an aggressive form of arthritis left his face pressed against his thighs for more than two decades.
Doctors at Shenzhen University General Hospital, which is in South China’s Guangdong Province, broke and rebuilt his entire spine in a series of four operations this year.
Li Hua, 46, was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis in 1991 at the young age of 18, when pain in his joints forced him to become increasingly hunchbacked.
His family, from the city of Yongzhou in Central China’s Hunan Province, did not have the financial means to treat him, and Li relied heavily on his elderly mother who became his full-time carer.
Images of the patient dubbed the ‘Folding Man’ – also the ‘Penknife Man’ – show his entire upper body folded onto his lower limbs in a permanent yoga-like standing forward bend pose.
Medics at the teaching hospital described the severe spinal deformity as ‘three-on’: chin on chest, sternum on pubis, and face on femur.
Li, who could not sit up straight or lie down flat, said his condition worsened in the past five years to the point where he struggled to eat or drink.
However, when he sought medical attention in his native province in 2018, he was refused surgery on the grounds that any operation would come with a very high risk to his life.
In May this year, Li’s family came across Professor Tao Huiren, who heads up the spinal surgery and orthopaedics department at Shenzhen University General Hospital.
Professor Tao had treated other ‘folding’ patients with similar spinal conditions, but none whose case was so severe, reports said.
Professor Tao accepted the challenge, citing a critical threat to Li’s life if pressure on his heart and lungs was not alleviated, and the first of many multi-disciplinary consultants began in June.
The medic said: “A regular so-called penknife patient would still be able to lift their head, but he couldn’t.
“There was only a 5-centimetre (2-inch) gap between his chin and thighs.
“Our only option was to break his bones one section at a time – femur, cervical vertebrae, thoracic vertebrae, lumbar vertebrae – and then straighten his entire spinal column.
“The risks involved were 20 to 30 times that of a regular spinal surgery patient, and the chances of him becoming a paraplegic were also very high.”
During the four-phase surgical plan, Li was allowed to sit up, then lift his head, then lie flat.
Post-operative images released by the hospital show Li’s entire body having been opened up, allowing him to lie flat, sit up and even stand straight for the first time in 28 years.
He is now able to move around with the help of a walker, but Professor Tao says he will regain normal movement following just two to three months of physical therapy.
The medic said: “Of course he won’t be able to do anything too extreme like boxing or playing tennis, but all regular bodily movements will not be a problem.”
Li said: “There would’ve been no cure for me without Doctor Tao.
“He’s my saviour, and my gratitude to him is second only to my mother.”
The hospital described Li’s case as the surgical equivalent of summiting Mount Everest.
It was the first time such severe spinal deformities have been corrected in China.
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