A Long-Distance Thank You

Using Skype, mom and son thank beloved surgeon who corrected child's clubfoot a decade ago

A chat on Skype gave a grateful mom a chance to express her thanks and her son an opportunity to talk with his hero, renowned pediatric orthopedic surgeon Michael G. Ehrlich, MD.

The online connection came after Devynn Fagre sent a heartfelt thank-you email to Dr. Ehrlich – a decade after he performed life-changing surgery on her son Gavin Palmer’s clubfoot.

“I was compelled to write to you to let you know there is not a day that goes by that I am not thankful for the work you performed on my child,” Fagre wrote.

“My child can run and walk with his family and friends because of you, and that is a gift that I will cherish forever. When God made you, he had it determined you would work wonders, and you have.”

A Passion for Research

Michael G. Ehrlich, MD, may have stepped down from his post as surgeon-in-chief and chairman of the department of orthopedics at Rhode Island Hospital and The Miriam Hospital, but he is far from retired.

Dr. Erhlich

The Vincent Zecchino Professor Emeritus, Ehrlich is director of orthopedic research at Lifespan and The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. His research interests include limb-lengthening physiology, neuromuscular disorders in children, and degradative enzyme systems in cartilage.

Among current investigations, he is excited about research by Qian Chen, PhD, and Yupeng Chen, PhD, that -- among other things -- uses nanotechnology for growth-plate cartilage repair. Dr. Erhlich said the research shows promise in eliminating dwarfism and combatting post-traumatic arthritis.

The research being done at the Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) for Skeletal Health and Repair is representative of the promising investigations being carried out at Lifespan, Dr. Ehrlich said.

Fagre added that her son never tires of hearing her tell about “the great man” who fixed his leg.

During a recent Skype conversation, Gavin was thrilled to say thank you. It was clear that Dr. Ehrlich, now retired from his practice, enjoyed the conversation as well. “Give me a high five,” he said, holding his hand up to the computer screen. “Boom!”

Gavin responded with a high five and a shy smile.

Gavin was treated first in Maine, where he was born, and then by a different physician after the family moved home to Rhode Island. Dr. Ehrlich didn’t examine Gavin’s clubfoot until the child was about a year old.

Gavin with his parents, Adam Palmer and Devynn Fagre.

“His was one of the worst I’d seen … We had a really difficult task on our hands,” said Dr. Ehrlich, then chief of orthopedics at Rhode Island Hospital – including its pediatric division, Hasbro Children’s Hospital – and The Miriam Hospital.

Ehrlich had developed a new surgical technique for clubfoot, which is a deformity in which an infant's foot is turned inward, often so severely that the bottom faces to the side or even up. About one infant in every 1,000 born will have clubfoot, and it affects boys twice as often as girls.

As Fagre remembers, Dr. Ehrlich told her “your son has a very particular kind of foot. I think I want to take his case.” After further tests, Dr. Ehrlich performed the four-hour operation when Gavin was about 18 months old.

“I will never forget the day you came out of his surgery with a huge grin and told me everything went very well, that you were certain you had straightened his foot,” Fagre said. “My tears just started pouring down my face. To me, it was a huge miracle … like every prayer was answered,” Gavin’s mom recalled in a phone conversation from her home in Parma, Ohio, where she relocated from Rhode Island in January 2016.

Dr. Ehrlich said about 20 percent of children with severe foot deformation require surgery when they cannot be successfully treated with the Ponseti method, which involves a series of casts and braces.

After recovering from his operation, and with physical therapy, two-year-old Gavin began walking without support – a milestone his mother said two doctors had told her he would never achieve.

The 11-year-old, who his mother calls “a funny, funny boy,” is in fifth grade at Hillside Middle School, where his favorite subject is science. Despite living in Ohio now, Gavin still roots for the Red Sox and New England Patriots. About Dr. Ehrlich, he said, “He’s in all my heart.”

Concluding the Skype call, Dr. Ehrlich thanked Fagre again for her letter, and “for letting me see that handsome son of yours, all grown up.”

“Without you,” Fagre said, as Gavin snuggled up to her on the sofa, “our lives would definitely be different than they are now.”