Surgically repaired legs help patient make up for lost time
By Ruth Cummins
A 1977 car wreck left Sam Delaughter with two shattered legs and knees and debilitating injuries that despite months of traction and a year in a cast, left him in a wheelchair, in pain, and in need of his old life.
“I was 38 years a cripple,” said Delaughter, a 65-year-old retiree who lives in rural Copiah County with his poodle mix Charlie. “I couldn’t do what I wanted to do, but I went on and did what I had to do.”
His doctors suggested his legs be amputated. “A lot of people said, ‘Why don’t you get on disability?’ I didn’t’ feel like that was the thing to do. I wanted to pursue my career.”
Alternately on crutches, a cane, or in a wheelchair, Delaughter did just that until retiring at age 60. A certified mechanic before his accident at age 27, Delaughter took a job at a local sawmill as a diesel mechanic, working on “anything that had to be fixed.”
Home all day with Charlie, Delaughter wanted more. His pain and ability to function worsened. In 2013, he was referred to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in hopes orthopedic specialists could undo decades of damage.
Thirty-eight years a cripple, Delaughter today is hopeful of soon walking unassisted due to a series of ambitious surgeries to rebuild his legs and knees.
His team is Dr. Matt Graves, associate professor of orthopedic surgery who specializes in adult bone deformity correction; Dr. George Russell, a trauma specialist and professor of orthopedic surgery; and Dr. Benjamin Stronach, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery and a hip and knee replacement specialist.
“It’s not often that we see someone like Sam, where we can make that much difference in their life,” Stronach said. “This is a dramatic result.”
“I can walk with crutches and a cane. My knees are still tender from surgery,” Delaughter said. “I can drive and shower and shave and do everything that normally a person can do. I have a new life.”
Delaughter’s legs were repaired through a procedure called a clamshell osteotomy developed by Russell. More than a decade ago, Russell remembered, he was drawing diagrams in his study room, trying to come up with the best way to repair a male patient’s crooked femur. “I had a (different) patient who had tried to escape from Whitfield and had tied bed sheets together to get out, but didn’t have enough. The patient landed on her heel and broke her femur.”
Her particular femur injury gave him the idea for creating the clamshell osteotomy as the best repair. After running it by his male patient, “he said OK, we did it, and he did really well. That’s how it all got started.”
Graves evaluated Delaughter’s legs and concluded they couldn’t be repaired with a more common osteotomy, or bone cut. But using the clamshell osteotomy, Graves cut a long section of Delaugher’s left femur and right tibia in surgeries several days apart, opening them like a clamshell and inserting titanium rods to straighten them.
Dr. Ben Stronach (left) and Sam Delaughter.
“We told Sam that this was a long process, and that you have to be all in,” Stronach said of the procedure, which now is used internationally. “Dr. Graves and I came up with an order for the surgeries. We have to do our part correctly, but this is really patient-driven.”
“It looked beautiful,” Russell said of Delaughter’s legs post-surgery. “This operation is very good for people who have had longstanding problems.”
Recovering well from the first two surgeries, Delaughter was still unable to put weight on his legs because of severe pain in his arthritic knees, including a significant deformity of his right femur close to the knee joint. He didn’t lose hope, and neither did his UMMC team.
Stronach discussed with Delaughter his options, including two more complicated surgeries to replace his knees. “I was skeptical,” Delaughter said of the surgeries.
But, the U.S. Army veteran craved his former life. “My son said, ‘Why do you want to go through the pain?’ I told him that I only have a few good years. I want to do things.”
Said Stronach: “There aren’t a lot of people who can go through what he’s going through.”
Using computer imaging to ensure Delaughter’s left leg was aligned, Stronach several months ago first replaced the left knee. Delaughter’s right femur deformity required a specialized surgery in which the femur bone is replaced with a metal implant to rebuild the knee joint.
“After we did his last surgery, his daughter was there,” Stronach said. “She cried. She never thought he would walk again.”
Using a collapsible cane, Delaughter is able to walk every day with less and less pain. He’s continuing rehab at home, water-walking and swimming in his pool every day. He’s almost regained the two inches of height the wreck cost him. His wheelchair is beginning to gather dust.
He’s back to riding his three-wheel motorcycle and plans to travel the country by train with his wife.
“I don’t feel cheated at all,” Delaughter said of the almost four decades he lost. “It just took a long time.”
“I’m lucky to have both legs. When I recover from this, I’ll be as good as I was at age 27.”