Having Surgery to Grow: Meet Akash

Akash Shukla elected to have a painful surgery that gave him two and half inches of height and a new sense of self.

Akash Shukla stopped growing at 16. It’s not unusual to stop growing at that age. But what was unusual, in his case, was his final height: 4 feet eleven inches tall. 

As a boy, Akash thought and hoped he’d have a growth spurt. But it never came. Then, when he was 16, his doctor found that his growth plates had fused and that he had no chance of growing. People usually reconcile themselves to their height, knowing you can’t fight nature. Not Akash.

Instead, he elected to have a limb lengthening operation that, if successful, would make him two and half inches taller. But the surgery was risky, expensive -- $275,000 -- and extremely painful.  During the operation doctors break your bones with a chisel and fasten metal rings to your legs with screws. Then, during rehab, therapists turn the screws in your legs to create gaps in your bones. As the gaps between the bones increase, the body tries to mend the fractures and, as a result generates new bone. It’s a painful, six-month long ordeal that few can endure.

But Akash did endure it, and documented his ordeal in a book titled Measure of a Man. The book, published in May of 2009, was well received and Akash has appeared on Inside Edition and The Morning Show with Mike and Juliette. He was also the subject of the documentary, Short and Male, and was featured in The NY Post, Discover Magazine and ABC News.com.  Akash co-wrote the book with his father, Rahul Shukla.

In this interview, Akash, a senior at NJT majoring in Industrial Engineering, talks about the surgery he endured at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. He also discusses how undergoing such an ordeal changed him both physically and psychologically.  

So was the surgery a success?
It was.  Before the surgery I was 4’ 11.5’ Now, I am 5’2.” My bones are as normal as they were before the surgery. The year after the surgery I ran a 5k race and finished in eighth place out of 80.

Why did you decide to have the surgery? Many people are short but don’t have an operation to gain height?
It wasn’t just my short stature that bothered me; it was the utter helplessness I felt about not being able to do anything about it. By getting this surgery, not only did I get 2 ½ inches taller, but I felt like I fixed something that seemed unfixable. I got closure, and was able to move on with my life.

Before the surgery, did people condescend to you? What about girls?
Most people treated me fairly. Yet, I always felt a deep sadness inside me. And, it is true that girls did not take me seriously.

And now that you are taller, do people perceive or treat you differently?  Does two and a half inches make a difference?
I think the 2 ½ inches made a tremendous difference. I think that the height I am now allows me to easily blend in with society. I knew that this surgery wasn’t going to make me tall -- it was just going to make me less short.  When people hear about my surgery and my book, they admire my courage, determination, and they treat me with tremendous respect.

Describe the surgery and the six-month rehabilitation period? Was there a time you wanted to give up?
There are no words that can adequately describe the severity of the pain. Sometimes, the pain would take over my senses, and I would begin to lose my resolve. But my dad had told me something wise. Before the surgery, I had asked him, “Do you think the surgery will hurt a lot?” He replied, “More than anything you can ever imagine. But then, the pain will go away, but the increase in height will stay with you forever.”

As I have described in my book, there was a point where I completely lost my resolve and said, “I want these rings off now.” Thank God, though, that I have the most understanding Mom and Dad in the world, and without their support this surgery would have been impossible. After I returned from the hospital, I was completely bedridden and immobilized. My mom and Dad were constantly at my side from morning till night. I couldn't do anything on my own, and needed them to do everything for me.

Reading your book, I was struck by how close you are to your parents, and by how devoted they are to you.
Many first-generation immigrants try hard to preserve their culture -- and in the process they enforce additional rules on their children. My parents were never like that. I come from a literate family of writers. My grandfather, at 93, is an enlightened journalist. My dad is also a writer.  My mom and Dad raised me with great affection and humor. They have allowed me to be myself with them. That has created this unusual closeness.

When during your rehab did you notice that you were growing?
The stretching started ten days after I got back from the hospital. I was growing at a rate of half a millimeter per day. Every few days, my parents would make me stand in front of a height chart and take my picture. Positive feedback like that created constant motivation for me to go on.

How long did the rehab take?
The lengthening phase of the surgery lasted roughly three months. After that phase was complete, the external rings were removed, and specialized rods were placed through my bone canals, to start the consolidation process. This phase took about a month and a half, after which point I was able to start weight bearing with the assistance of a cane. By mid-March, I was able to start walking without a cane and, soon after, I was able to start driving.

You transferred to NJIT from Drexel. Are you enjoying your major -- industrial engineering – at NJIT?
I transferred here from Drexel in the fall 2007. Drexel didn’t have Industrial Engineering as a daytime major -- just at night. That’s why I came to NJIT. I’m also now closer to my parents, who live in Warren Township. I’m due to graduate in December of this year, with a BS in Industrial Engineering. I’m in the BS/MS program so will stay for another year to get my master’s degree in Engineering Management.

Why did you write a book about your ordeal?
There’s a chapter in my book that describes how we decided to go about writing this book. In brief, I love to write. At Rutgers Preparatory School, I wrote for and edited my school paper. And here at NJIT I write for the Vector. So I thought I would keep notes while I went through surgery and rehab and write it up as a narrative. Doing that helped me get through the pain, and now I’m the author of a well-reviewed book, which I’m proud of.

What will you do after you graduate from NJIT?
I’ll continue in the Master’s Program in Engineering Management and I also want to start a full-time job. My father owns an engineering company in Piscataway that makes aerospace and automotive parts, as well as orthopedic surgical tools. He possesses a good combination of skills -- entrepreneur and engineer -- and I want to learn from him. Then, after a few years, I hope to start my own manufacturing company.

You’ve said that, in the end, the operation made you stronger not only physically and but also mentally. How so?
Whenever I now face a challenge, whether it is physical or mental, I always think to myself, “If you could handle that tough surgery, you can handle this much simpler problem?” In fact, one of the biggest differences this surgery made in me, other than increasing my height, was that it made me a better student. Basically, I thought that if I could handle the surgery, why can’t I be a better student? This state of mind really helps me push myself. I feel like there is no obstacle I can’t overcome.

 (By Robert Florida, University Web Services)