Best Doctors 2010: Frame Work

Dr. John Sontich

Susan Reader can always tell when something is wrong with Dr. John Sontich.

Last summer, when he came in to remove a cast from her leg, his forehead was scrunched up. That was the sign.

Reader’s leg had been shattered when the motorcycle she was riding was struck by a pickup truck driven by a drunk driver. The 2008 crash killed her boyfriend.

“Susie,” Sontich said. “Your leg is still broken.”

Reader, who lives in Youngstown, had already been through 11 surgeries and couldn’t bear the thought of one more. She started to cry, but Sontich stayed beside her. He always did. He patted her on the back and assured her everything would be all right.

“We’ll take care of it,” he said. And he did.

Today, nearly 22 months from the day of the crash, she is independent. Reader, 37, can walk — albeit with a cane. She can drive. She can get groceries. She can do all those little things that, for nearly two years, she had to rely on others for.

“I would give Dr. Sontich everything I have if I had to,” Reader says. “I’ve been through a lot, and he has really been there for me.”

Doctors in Myrtle Beach, where the accident happened, wanted to amputate Reader’s leg. She steadfastly refused.

After she was stabilized and transported by medical jet to MetroHealth Medical Center, Sontich, one of the nation’s leading surgeons when it comes to repairing severely broken bones, was called in. Sontich is also an expert in using the Ilizarov frame, a series of stainless steel rings that are fixed to the bone with heavy-gauge wire. The device is used to grow new bone by stretching the rings farther apart over a long period.

He also uses a Taylor Spatial Frame, which is the next generation of the Ilizarov and uses a computer program to guide new bone growth.

Reader had two Taylor Spatial Frames, one on top of the other with rods installed into her feet and just below her knee. Black and silver rings and rods surrounded her entire lower leg like scaffolding.

The frames were on her leg for 367 days. Ultimately, they grew more than 4 inches of new bone.

“This was a leg that would have required an above-knee amputation,” Sontich says. “She was the worst of the worst.”

He didn’t hide that from Reader, either, and she appreciated it — to an extent. During her recovery, Sontich showed Reader pictures of her leg taken immediately after the crash. “I told him never to do that again,” she says.

But Sontich is proud of his patient. “This was really a severe, limb-threatening injury,” he says. “She had a very large hole in the leg, one of the biggest defects you can’t make up for. But now she is doing very well. ”

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