Stories about: Dr. Lawrence Karlin

Superheros, specialists and sidekicks

service dogSporting a Superman sock on her left foot and Batman on her right, Bella Burton, a 12-year-old from Woburn, Massachusetts, listens intently to her orthopedic surgeon Dr. Lawrence Karlin. Lots of people mix up their socks, he tells her. “You should really stand out from the crowd. Wear unmatched shoes.”

She chuckles and pretends to ponder his advice. Ultimately, Bella decides against Karlin’s fashion tips.

The exchange is typical of Bella and Karlin, says her mother Rachel.

The pair first met in 2007 at the Boston Children’s Hospital Orthopedic Center when Bella was just a toddler. Genetic experts suspected Bella had Morquio syndrome, a rare birth defect whose symptoms include abnormal bone and spine development and possible heart and vision problems.

As Bella underwent genetic testing, Rachel and her husband Ed faced a flutter of uncertainty. “We were so new to Boston Children’s, and Bella’s diagnosis wasn’t confirmed.”

Genetic testing confirmed Bella did have Morquio, which meant she needed a slew of additional specialists — in clinical genetics, pulmonology, cardiology, neurology and more.

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Seeing Phoenix

spina bifidaIt seems like people have been looking at our son Phoenix — without seeing him, without talking to him — since before he was born.

When I was pregnant and the ultrasound showed severe spina bifida and kyphosis (an excessive forward curve in his spine), the specialist told us he had never seen a spine like Phoenix’s. He wasn’t sure how it could be treated and recommended terminating my pregnancy.

My husband Mike and I chose not to.

Phoenix was born on June 29, 2009, with a lesion at the base of his spine. His spinal cord and nerves were exposed, so his first surgery was a skin graft to cover the lesion. On top of spina bifida and kyphosis, our son was diagnosed with clubfoot and hydrocephalus.

It felt like Phoenix was a patient before he was baby. He had 16 specialists — an orthopedic surgeon, neurosurgeon, ophthalmologist, physical therapist and more.

Phoenix’s appointments gobbled up 40 hours a week. One doctor would remind me to stretch his legs with every appointment change; another to patch his eye.

He didn’t get to be baby, and the back and forth among all of Phoenix’s specialists left me feeling insecure and unsettled as a mother. Was I doing anything right?

Doctor after doctor talked at me. Every visit was a constant checklist.

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Gorham-Stout disease: 12 years, two patients and one innovation

Dan and Alex, a few weeks after Alex's surgery
Dan and Alex, a few weeks after Alex’s surgery for Gorham-Stout disease (Photo Susanne Malloy)

On a snowy Saturday in January, two mothers sat sipping tea and conversing about their sons. It was an ordinary scene, but the women’s conversation was far from ordinary.
The scariest thing a doctor can tell you is ‘I don’t know. I’ve never seen this before.’ To find two doctors who treated this before and then to see Dan doing so well is tremendously gratifying. ~ Susanne Malloy

Susanne’s son Alexander Malloy, 14, had been recently diagnosed with Gorham-Stout disease. Gorham-Stout, also referred to as “vanishing-bone” disease, triggers a process that destroys bones and typically affects a single area like the shoulder, jaw hip, rib or spine.

“It was shocking,” recalls Susanne. An MRI earlier that week, prompted by a worsening of her son’s mild scoliosis, had shown Alex was missing bones in his spine and likely had Gorham-Stout.

After the MRI, Alex’s orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Lawrence Karlin, reassured Susanne and her husband Tom that Boston Children’s Hospital would have a plan for their son.

As Susanne and Tom digested the diagnosis, she began thinking Gorham-Stout, a rare bone disease of the lymphatic system reported in about 300 patients, sounded familiar. “I can’t have heard of it before,” she told herself.

The feeling persisted, so she called a friend, who said, “That sounds like Dan Ventresca.”

Twelve years earlier, Dan, who lived a few streets away from the Malloys in Hingham, Massachusetts, had been diagnosed with the same disease. Like Alex, Dan’s disease was located in his spine. Susanne’s friend called Dan’s mother.

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My sister, my inspiration

Listen to Colton and Lena talk about their relationship. 

My little sister, Lena, was born in Denver, Colorado, on Feb. 24, 2000. My recollection of that day and the weeks that followed is hazy — not only because I was just six years old, but also because I was being shuttled between several relatives while my parents attended to some “medical problem” my sister had, which I couldn’t really understand.

The words spina bifida didn’t mean much to me, but between my parents’ solemnity and the fact that — as it was explained to me — the doctors needed to cut into my sister’s back with a laser, I started to get an abstract, naive idea of the seriousness of the whole thing.

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