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Strangers give Bolivian boy walk of life

By Azadeh Ansari, CNN
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Complex surgery allows boy to walk
  • Bolivian boy with genetic condition gets surgery in U.S. to help him walk
  • Doctor say after two operations he should soon be walking normally
  • Freddy Turihuano has abnormal development of cartilage and bone

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- Life's journeys begin with a single step but for Freddy Turihuano he had to travel thousands of miles just to make his first step.

From the Bolivian countryside of Sucre to Atlanta, Georgia, the plight of the small town boy touched the hearts of complete strangers who helped transform his life.

Freddy suffers from a genetic condition characterized by abnormal development of cartilage and bone called multiple epiphyseal dysplasia (MED).

No stranger to pain, for most of his childhood life, Freddy has struggled to stand and could not walk. He was unable to help with household chores, play with other children, and to get to school he needed his father to carry him.

"In the rural town where I live, there are no doctors who could operate on me," Freddy said. "Then one day, by the grace of God, I encountered a pastor at a local church and he said he might be able to help me."

The missing link came in 2007 when a group of parishioners from Dunwoody United Methodist Church in Atlanta, Georgia heard about Freddy's story while on a mission trip in Bolivia.

One of the parishioners got the x-rays to Atlanta-based orthopedic surgeon Dr. Marvin Royster, who agreed to do the surgery for free -- but getting Freddy to the U.S. would be the next obstacle.

Jaqueline Garofalo, a medical assistant with Royster, said: "The parishioners found his x-rays and brought them back to the states looking for a surgeon that would be able to take care of him.

"Once Dr. Royster told me he would do the surgery, I made it my mission to try to get him here."

With the help of the local Atlanta community Garofalo raised $10,000 vis Operation Harvest so Freddy, then 12, could have his first orthopedic corrective surgery, which enabled him to stand and walk for the first time.

But as Freddy continued to grow into his teen years, doctors realized that his deformity was getting worse and a second surgery would be necessary as his legs were not growing properly.

So in April, Freddy accompanied by his Bolivian pediatrician, left his parents and two sisters behind and returned to Atlanta for the second operation.

"Freddy is a very brave and strong person," said Royster at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia.

"It is truly nothing short of a miracle to be able to bring him back," said Royster.

Doctors knew that finishing the job of straightening Freddy's legs would be a complicated task but they were up for the challenge.

"The voice came basically to my head I think it was God speaking to me telling me actually I'm not asking you to do anything you don't normally know how to do," said Dr. Royster.

Doctors cut both of Freddy's femurs to change the alignment and straighten his legs, without affecting vital tissues in his leg - an approach similar to total knee surgery. The surgery added about 4 to 6 inches to the length of his legs putting him just under 5 feet tall.

With the five-hour surgery behind him, Freddy is now recovering with a host family. Royster said he will be able to walk normally and lead a normal life when he returns home.

Pastor Tito Santiago, Freddy's host father, his wife Yami and their four kids welcomed Freddy into their home in Cumming, Georgia and he will stay there for the next three months.

Last week Freddy celebrated his 15th birthday. His birthday wish: to be a soccer player or a doctor.

"Right now, it would be difficult for me to play sports," said Freddy.

"I am very grateful for what everyone has done to help me, I want to focus on my studies and hope to become a doctor one day, so I can help others," he added.