October 01, 2007 12:00 PM

Sarah Fuchs remembers well that October day in 2005 when her towheaded, blue-eyed baby boy came into the world in a Springfield, Mo., hospital. As she and her husband, David, touched their son Ryan for the first time, they were shocked to see that he had only a thumb and partial pinky on his left hand. “Sarah was so worried about how he was going to deal with it,” says David, recalling her tearful reaction.

But thanks to the pioneering surgery techniques of William Seitz, a Cleveland Clinic orthopedic surgeon, Ryan isn’t dealing with much now besides how to spend a lazy afternoon: playing with his 6-month-old sister Kaitlyn, turning the pages of his favorite book or feeding himself Goldfish crackers with the fingers Seitz created for him using bones from his toes. Seitz describes Ryan’s three missing fingers as “a random event” that happens to roughly 1 in 10,000 babies, most without a definitive reason. Still, Seitz says, “no two hand anomalies are identical,” which means even though he has sculpted extremities for more than 400 children, “every one has its twist.” Ryan was 8 months when he harvested three bones from his middle toes, where the bone attaches to the foot, to create digits. (The procedure will ultimately not affect his feet.) Seitz then fastened screws from the bones into a painless, child-size stretching device he designed to lengthen the fingers a millimeter per day for 26 days.

Ryan has four surgeries behind him, and at least two more as he grows, but Seitz expects he’ll do everything kids do. For Connor Mancini, 13, of West Lake, Ohio, who had the same surgeries when he was a baby, that includes playing baseball, football and trumpet in the school band. “We don’t even think about it anymore,” says Connor’s mother, Cindy. So far the biggest challenge for Ryan is “the monkey bars,” says David, 27, a dentist. But for Sarah, 25, happiness is “just seeing him use his hand like he does. Dr. Seitz’s motto is, ‘The more function a hand has, the less people notice it.'”

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