October 04, 2010 12:00 PM

Listening to his 4-year-old son on the baby monitor recently, Dan Whitney-better known as his stand-up comedy alter ego, Larry the Cable Guy-heard Wyatt whisper to his 2-year-old sister Reagan. “He said, ‘I love Jesus. Reagan, do you love Jesus?’ ” recalls Whitney. “I’m thinking, ‘How cute is this?’ Then I listen closer and he’s actually saying, ‘I love Cheez-Its.’ That’s Wyatt. He’s all about football, wrestlin’ and bull-ridin.’ ”

A few years ago Whitney, 47, and his wife, Cara, 34, could never have imagined just how active their son would grow to be. Diagnosed at just a few days old with hip dysplasia-a looseness of the hip joint that can lead to crippling arthritis in children and adults-Wyatt faced the possibility of months in a full body cast or major surgery to repair his damaged joint. Most frustrating for the Whitneys was the lack of universal information about the condition, the most common abnormality in newborns (see box). Recalls Cara: “I thought, ‘For something so common, how come nobody has any answers?’ ”

And so Cara became a mom on a mission. The family-who split their time between houses in Florida and Dan’s home state of Nebraska-connected with Dr. Chad Price, a pediatric orthopedist and an international authority on hip dysplasia, at Orlando’s Arnold Palmer Medical Center. Just out of the hospital, Wyatt underwent the standard first line of treatment, wearing a device called a Pavlik harness that holds the hips in a flexed position to help joints form normally. It didn’t work at first, but instead of resorting to the traditional surgery, Price recommended a second try with the harness with some minor repositioning. Wyatt wore the harness for 23 hours a day for seven months. “I could never get a really good squeeze on him,” laments Cara. But he was healed. “It was like, ‘How can everyone else get this information?’ ” Cara says.

Since then the Whitneys, through their Git-R-Done Foundation, have given $5 million to start the International Hip Dysplasia Institute, which aims to help educate doctors, patients and parents about the condition. And although Wyatt still goes for yearly X-rays, Dr. Price doesn’t anticipate any future problems. “The older and more rambunctious he gets, I get less and less worried about it,” says Dan, whose new series Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy debuts on cable’s History channel early next year. So much so that the comic dad is back to cracking wise: “I’m perfectly fine about Wyatt’s hips. It’s his brain function I’m worried about!”

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