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The BBC's Richard Bilton
"The operation Emma had is rare"
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Pyschologist, Professor Nichola Rumsey
"The danger is to believe that changing one's appearance is a solution to problems"
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Monday, 13 November, 2000, 17:50 GMT
Surgeon defends teenager stretch op
Emma Richards
Emma Richards has spent months in hospital
A surgeon has defended the decision to perform surgery on a teenager who wanted to stretch her legs to become tall enough to be an air hostess.

The operation on 15-year-old Emma Richards cost the NHS 12,000.

Since undergoing surgery, Emma, now 16, has suffered an infection and broken her leg twice because the bones have been weakened.

Her career aspirations had no bearing whatsoever on whether we carried out this procedure

Dr Darren Fern, orthopaedic surgeon
The six-hour operation was carried out in January by orthopaedic surgeon Dr Darren Fern at the Royal Cornwall Hospital Treliske, Truro.

Emma stopped growing when she was just 4ft 9ins. But the minimum height for an air hostess is 5ft 3ins.

All airlines have a minimum height requirement so cabin crews can reach safety equipment and overhead lockers.

However, Dr Fern said: "Her career aspirations had no bearing whatsoever on whether we carried out this procedure."

"This has not been done for cosmetic reasons. It is functional and we have done it to make her life better."

Broken bones

Emma Richards
Emma Richards: No regrets
The surgical procedure she underwent involved breaking the thigh bone in both legs in two places.

Six five inch pins were then screwed into each bone and attached to a metal frame.

Over the next four months, Emma was bedridden while the screws were turned four times a day to draw the broken bones away from each other.

Her body responded naturally by creating new bone to fill the gap.

Dr Fern said a full psychological assessment had been carried out on Emma before the operation.

He said she had been unable to reach into cupboards, was worried about ever being able to drive and whether she could lead a normal life.

Although approaching adulthood, Emma was always treated as a child because of her height, he said.

"Each case is taken on its individual merits. Somebody else who is 4ft 9ins maybe fine, but Emma was not fine about being that height.

"Children can be unthinkably cruel to their friends if they see something different about them."

One inch short

Since the operation, Emma has had to endure three more spells in hospital due to the infection and fractures.

She is currently in traction after the latest break in September.

The would-be hostess took a year out of school and delayed taking her GCSEs to have the op.

However, the procedure stretched Emma's legs by only five - one inch short of her target height.

She hopes that her body's hormones will respond to the surgery to help stimulate an extra inch of growth.

Professor Nichola Rumsey
Professor Nichola Rumsey is concerned about obsession with appearance
She said: "When I'm depressed I've often thought 'I wish this was all over and done with', but I've never thought 'I wish I hadn't had it done'.

"It's made me feel more confident and I feel that I've something to aim for in life to become an air hostess.

"I've never been abroad and I want to travel the world."

Emma's mother Irene said: "She knows what she wants from life and that was the whole point of the operation.

"We knew there were risks, but she's strong and has coped well.

"The first few weeks after the operation were the worst. She was in a lot of pain and there were a few tears, but it would be the same for everyone. It has made her a stronger personality."

Emma, from Wadebridge, Cornwall, is one of around 150 children aged between five and 16 to have had the complex surgery in Britain. Usually it is carried out on people much shorter than Emma.

I've never thought 'I wish I hadn't had it done'

Emma Richards
Mrs Richards said: "Nobody else forced her to do it.

"When it came to having the op, she signed the consent forms herself. We would never have let her do it otherwise."

Professor Nichola Rumsey, from the Centre for Appearance and Disfigurement Research, said teenagers were growing increasingly obsessed by their appearance.

She said: "The danger about having operations like this is to believe that just changing a piece of appearance will be the solution - really that is very short-termist.

"The major worry is that if something else goes wrong or she lacks confidence a bit later on in her life she will look to her appearance again and want to change another bit of that."

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