Akash Shukla had his legs sawed in two to gain 2.5 inches.
At the tender age of 16, when most teenagers are fretting over dates and pimples, Akash Shukla was devastated to learn from his endocrinologist that he would not grow taller than 4 feet 11.5 inches. If he had been living in India, where the average height of men is 5 feet 5 inches, he may have been indifferent, but growing up in New Jersey, where the average man boasts a height of 5 feet 10 inches, Shukla was bothered by his short stature. He felt people did not take him seriously and he did not want to spend the rest of his life hearing jokes like, “Good things come in small packages.” So instead of reconciling to his fate, as most people do, the tenacious teenager decided to undergo a painful and expensive limb lengthening surgical procedure to make him 2.5 inches taller.
After almost a year long turmoil, which Shukla describes as “probably worse than giving birth to seven kids at a time,” he stands at a proud 5 feet 2 inches. His says he turned his life around, as he gained not only inches, but confidence and identity as well.
“I have gone from being known as short to being known as Shukla. I am now free to engage the world as myself,” he says.
Shukla documents his unusual surgery in a book titled Measure Of A Man, which he published in May 2009. He says: “Most people that go through limb lengthening feel very uncomfortable about sharing their experience. On the other hand, not only did I write a book, but agreed to appear in newspaper articles and documentaries.”
Shukla’s candid and at times clinical account of his experience captures the emotional and physical pain he endured: “A circular frame is placed around the patient’s leg, below the knee. The frame is bolted into the bone, right above the knee and above the ankle. Threaded screws go through the skin and bone. The top and middle rings are connected by six telescoping struts. Once the rings are securely attached to each leg, the surgeon breaks the bone. After going home, the patient starts rotating each strut a certain amount. This creates force that pushes the upper and lower rings apart. As a result the broken bone pulls further apart and new bone grows in its place.”
Shukla underscores how the support of his parents was instrumental in both his decision to undertake the surgery and later as he struggled to overcome the pain associated with it. He says they were all fully aware of the dangers and rewards of the procedure, which is not covered by health insurance and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Four years after his surgery Shukla’s experience was covered in a documentary Short & Male by Canadian filmmaker Howard Goldberg. Many Indians, who may not empathize with Shukla’s obsession with his height, will find in the film ways that Indian children growing up in the West combine the practicality of their Western environment with their Eastern heritage.
Since the surgery, Shukla has a renewed confidence, doing things that other boys his age take for granted, he says, like asking a date to parties or locking eyes with a girl. He has also gained a perspective that few his age can match: “I am better off than others and my problems are small in this big world and I can fight this, because it’s all I want.”
He is now focused on his studies in Industrial Engineering at NJIT in Newark, N.J.: “After undergoing such a painful surgery, I thought, there shouldn’t be anything I can’t do. I used this mentality to change my study habits. Before the surgery, I used to be an average student. However, since then, I have become a much better student and have made the Deans List for the last two semesters.”
That’s no stretch for Akash Shukla.