BALTIMORE -- The slap of a frustrated father almost cost a little boy his life a decade ago, but the near-tragedy moved a doctor to devote himself to a strange and trying medical speciality -- the 'repair' of dwarves.
'I got my first dwarf patient in January, 1968 -- and I didn't even know it at first.' said Dr. Steven Kopits, who has performed 1,400 life-saving operations on about 800 dwarves since then.
'A little blond-haired boy named Jay came into my office, paralyzed from the waist down,' the Johns Hopkins Hospital orthopedic surgeon recalled. 'He couldn't undress fast enough so his father slapped him in the face. The little boy collapsed instantly and became a quadrapelgic.'
Genetic tests showed that, unbeknowst to his parents and physicians, the 4-year-old was a dwarf and had weakened neck vertebrae that could be easily dislocated by a sharp blow to the head.
'Even though I didn't know anything about dwarves -- and there wasn't much more written about how to treat them -- I went ahead and operated on Jay,' Kopits said, 'He walked out of the hospital a few months later.'
Kopits said dwarves' lives can be also threatened in a more insiduous fashion, with the vertebrae gradally pinching the spinal cord and slowly shutting down respiration.
'As an orthopedic surgeon, I grew interested in dwarves because they are so disabled and there was no help, they really had nothing going for them,' the 45-year-old surgeon explained. 'I am not interested in dwarves because they are small and an item of curiousity. I could care less if they were green or blue, fat or tall.'
Kopits' brand of reconstructive surgery relies on basic orthopedic techniques adapted to the unique proportions and distortions of dwarves' bodies. He uses no artificial joints -- preferring instead to realign the dwarves' bowed legs and twisted necks by cutting, realigning and fusing bone.
As word spread among 'little people' about the life-saving procedures Kopits dared to perform, his caseload grew to include patients from all 50 states and 17 foreign countries. He currently has a 22-month backlog of patients.
'Dr. Kopits is one of a kind. He's pioneering in a field where other physicians haven't had any success or had any courage to try,' said Jan DuGoff, whose 3-year-old son Benji is able to walk thanks to the doctor's innovative techniques.
Benji, a bright-eyed little boy who stands just 30 inches tall, is a diastrophic dwarf -- one of the 34 varieties of deformities that account for the approximately 30,000 dwarves in the United States.
'Now he's about the most active child in the world, really spunky to say the least,' said Mrs. DuGoff, whose normal 1-year-old daughter is already taller than Benji.
Mrs. DuGoff, whose husband is a lawyer in Silver Spring, Md., adds that without reconstructive surgery dwarves like Benji are forced to hobble around on tiptoe because of mishapen bones.
'Anybody who's never really had close contact with a dwarf, never knows they have all these problems,' said Mrs. DuGoff, who said Benji will need more operations as he gets older to keep his knees and hips from dislocating.
Kopits, a native of Budapest, Hungary, who came to the United States in 1964, calls 19-year-old Mary Prillaman of Vero Beach, Fla. his 'biggest success.'
'When I first saw Maryfour years ago she was very weak, barely able to walk. All I could think is that she was going to die no matter what I did,' Kopits recalls. 'But I just took my set of orthopedic procedures and started methodically trying to handle an impossible situation.'
After hours of surgery, weeks of plaster casts and months of physical therapy, Mary is now a college student in Lynchburg, Va. studying to be a speech therapist.
'Success is taking someone who is so very feeble and getting that person strong enough to move, to walk and work. To give them courage to lead an independent life,' Kopits said.