Ten-year-old Marisela Hebson was constantly falling and in pain because her legs were so bent.
But after a series of foot surgeries, the fifth-grader, who has achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism, has found talent and great joy in sports.
Marisela, nicknamed Zels, represents Logan’s Golwari Christian College as a forward in inter-school soccer.
He is an avid swimmer and surfer who frequents Stradbroke Island with his sports-loving family, including mum Marissa, dad David and eight-year-old twin brothers Leo and Lachie.
It wasn’t until Zels finished second in the freestyle competition at her school’s swimming carnival last year that her parents realized her talent in the pool and enrolled her at the Sue Aitken Swimming School near her home in Thornlands, Redlands.
“We’ve always wanted him to swim because it’s the best exercise for his body. It’s low impact but good for him,” Ms Hebson said.
“We wanted to do it and it pushed. My husband said: “That’s it. Add him to the squad.”
“In a still pool, he takes off like a dolphin. He’s really, really good.”
Zels has been surfing since he was four, but surgery to correct his foot at Brisbane’s Mater Children’s Private Hospital allowed him to play football for his school, which celebrates his athleticism.
“They trust me to play like everybody else and keep up with them,” Zels said.
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A ‘simple’ operation with a ‘profound impact’
In September 2016, orthopedic surgeon Ivan Astori placed four small metal plates, each about the size of a paper clip, on the outside of Zels’ tibia and femur in both legs.
Using screws, Dr. Astori attached a set of Meccano-like pieces of stainless steel to the growth plates in the knee in an operation medically known as hemi-epiphysiodesis.
Also called controlled growth surgery, this procedure slows the growth of the outer part of his legs while the inner part of the bones continue to grow normally, straightening the legs over time.
In mid-2019, Dr. Astori performed more surgery to repair his shin splints in his ankle.
He cut straight through the tibia — a procedure called an osteotomy — and reattached Zels’ shin bones with plates and screws to fix the ankle.
“Without the surgeries, he would have struggled with pain and his disability would have worsened,” he said.
“The operation itself is relatively simple, but it had a huge impact.”
About a year after this operation, the Hebsons sent Dr. Astori a picture of Zells surfing on a board.
“It’s amazing to see something like this,” he said.
“It gives me great pleasure to know that the patient I attended had a functional improvement.
“She’s a lovely girl and she’s obviously been through a lot.”
With adjusted, pain-free legs and the encouragement of Calvary Christian College, Zels went from falling “constantly” to excelling in sports.
“His surgery was the best decision we ever made,” Ms Hebson said.
“The pain just got better.”
Zells will compete in the eight-day World Dwarf Games at the German Sports University in Cologne from July 28, representing Australia in swimming, football, athletics and basketball.
“I can’t wait to see if I’m really good because I usually expect to lose,” Zels said.
“But who knows this time? Maybe I’ll get a spot. I’d like to make as many new friends as I do. Having fun… the most important thing.”
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She watches Ally Simmonds, a gold medalist and retired British swimmer with achondroplasia, on YouTube and is thinking about one day competing in the Paralympics.
“I thought it was pretty cool,” Zels said. “I want to do it.”
He also enjoys playing rugby in the backyard and wrestling with his brothers and best friend Islam.
“But sometimes my mom gets angry and tells me to stop,” said the schoolboy.
The Hebsons hope that by telling Zels’ story, it will raise much-needed awareness of achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism that occurs in one in 25,000 newborns and is caused by a mutation in the FGFR3 gene.
When a pediatrician diagnosed Zels with dwarfism when he was 10 weeks old, Ms Hebson said the news “hit him like an arrow”.
“I remember just getting up and walking out,” she recalled.
“I was shocked. I didn’t expect that. A couple of days later, I called the clinic again and apologized.
“It wasn’t long before we saw a beautiful, happy and thriving girl. Our love and affection for him increased and the pain subsided.’
The family was not immune to constant harassment from strangers because of Sels’ achondroplasia, a Royal Commission on Dwarf Disability was told late last year.
Staring is common when the family is out in public, and Ms Hebson talks about people taking out their mobile phones to take photos or videos of their daughter.
“I say to Zels, ‘It’s not your job to educate them, dear,'” Ms. Hebson said.
“When you surround him more with people who know him well, who know him, who don’t see him and don’t care, that’s the best. He’s happy at the moment.”
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