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‘Folding Man’ Stands Straight For First Time In 28 Years

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Then eighteen-year-old Li Hua was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis — an aggressive arthritis condition — in 1991. Joint pain gradually rendered him hunchbacked, a condition that progressed until his upper body was folded over against his legs. Li Hua was dubbed the “Folding Man,” and remained folded for two decades. Until now.

An Extreme Medical Condition Folded Li Hua In Half

Ankylosing spondylitis is an arthritic condition that primarily affects the spine. Sometimes referred to as just spondylitis, it produces inflammation of the vertebrae, which results in severe and chronic pain. Over time, the body’s constant cycle of healing-and-repair produces tissue scarring and extra bony material. Patients with severe spondylitis can experience bony fusion in the spine and other joints. That fusion can produce kyphosis — usually called roundback or hunchback. Li Hua had extreme kyphosis.

Li Hua’s condition was so extreme that medics called it “three-on.” What that means was that Li Hua’s chin was on his chest, his breastbone was on his pelvic bone, and his face was on his thigh. How did Li Hua live as his condition gradually deteriorated to that point, and as he was folded-over?

Li Hua’s family was from Yongzhuo, China, in the country’s Hunan province. He relied greatly on his increasingly elderly mother for 28 years as his condition progressed. His condition prevented Li Hua from sitting up fully or even lying down completely. Even eating and drinking was difficult during the last years.

A Risky Chance For A New Life

In May 2019, Li Hua met Professor Tao Huiren, who was head of spinal surgery and orthopedics at Shenzhen University General Hospital in Xili University Town, in the Nanshan District of Shenzhen, China. Huiren had treated both roundbacked and hunchbacked patients, but none in such an extreme condition as Li Hua. It was a meeting that would give Li Hua an opportunity for a different life.

Physicians in Hunan Province had refused to operate on Li Hua in 2018. They thought it was too risky. Huiren agreed it was risky but had a plan. In his mind, the risk of doing nothing was also too high. Something had to be done to reduce the pressure that Li Hua’s sustained folded posture was placing on his heart and lungs.

According to physicians, their 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.

Despite the high risks, this surgery was reminiscent of other orthopedic procedures that help dramatically increase mobility. Hopes were high that Li Hua would be able to be helped.

 A difficult procedure succeeds

Li Huan underwent four surgeries in 2019. The result? The “Folding Man” can stand straight again, for the first time in 28 years. And even more than stand straight, he can lie flat, sit up, and move with the help of a walker. While typical mobility isn’t going to be immediate, it is expected to improve greatly after up to three months of physical therapy.

In addition, doctors believe that with time, “regular bodily movements will not be a problem.” Of course, there’s some bittersweetness news to his prognosis. Huiren cautions that “of course he won’t be able to do anything too extreme like boxing or playing tennis.”

Considering that even just straightening at the waist was impossible for Li Hua for the last 20 years, he probably wasn’t too disappointed to hear that a career in boxing or tennis was still beyond his reach.

Overflowing with gratitude

It isn’t surprising that Li Hua is filled with gratitude. For him, Huiren was a savior. However, there’s only one person for whom Li Hua was even more grateful for — his Mom. In return, one can only imagine Mom’s gratitude for Huiren, and for her son’s new future.

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