Gabriella McElwain crouched over her violin case and placed her bow in her right hand, securing it tightly in the gap between her small thumb and first finger.
On this November afternoon, a day before her 13th birthday, she was getting ready for a short performance in a rehabilitation room at Hand and Microsurgery Associates on the Northwest Side.
Applause broke out after Gabriella played a sampling of “Shadow Dance” and “March Heroic.”
So did Dr. Lawrence Lubbers, the hand surgeon who has worked with Gabriella for more than five years to give her the thumb and fingers that have made it possible for her to play.
Born without fingers on her right hand, Gabriella has undergone several surgeries and endured months-long stints wearing bulky bone-lengthening equipment to create a small thumb, ring finger and pinky.
“It’s almost miraculous,” Lubbers said. “And pretty exciting, too.”
Or, as Gabriella puts it, “It’s kinda cool.”
The Far North Side girl’s journey to the violin started when she was 7 years old and frustrated that she wasn’t able to participate in some activities with classmates. Her mom, Kelly McElwain, said she remembers her daughter’s disappointment after missing out on ziplining and bicycle riding.
“I wanted to do other things that other people could do,” Gabriella said. “Sometimes I’d see people jump-roping and I’d be like, ‘I can’t do that.’”
So she and her mom decided to visit Lubbers and hear what he had to say. Once Gabriella learned about finger-lengthening, she was on board.
Lubbers started the process when Gabriella was 9, performing her surgeries at OhioHealth Dublin Methodist Hospital. The bones that would form her thumb and two fingers were broken in two and affixed with lengthening bars. Each bar contained two pins attached to a screw that Gabriella turned about half a millimeter every day to slowly pull apart the pieces of bone.
In the space that was created, new bone formed. And fingers began to appear.
“After awhile the body, slowly and at just the right pace, starts filling in the bone in between the gap,” Lubbers said. “So you pull it out and then you get new bone forming right where the space was, where there was no bone at all.”
She underwent the process three times over the years, wearing the hand contraption for four to five months at a time. The lengthening, she said, wasn’t painful. Some costs were covered by Medicaid. The rest was done pro bono.
This month, to determine whether she’d undergo another lengthening round, Gabriella and her mom visited Lubbers, whose practice has a joint venture with OhioHealth. They decided against it for now, with Lubbers surmising that additional length likely would not increase function.
Gabriella had an X-ray taken, and Lubbers compared it with images from the past. The first dated to 2012, when Gabriella’s hand ended at the bottom knuckles.
“There just wasn’t anything there before,” Lubbers said. “That’s one of the cool things about this case. You’re making something out of nothing and creating function where there was none.”
Lubbers said his practice has worked with about a half dozen young people from across Ohio who have needed digits lengthened. Gabriella, he said, needed the most.
During her appointment, he had her squeeze his forefinger, pick up various items — a pen, glass vial, roll of gauze — and write her name.
“So what’s your next goal, Gabby?” he asked. “You ready to take on another task?”
Gabriella shrugged. She couldn’t think of anything that she couldn’t already do.
“She’s grown leaps and bounds,” her mother said. “She’s a happy, joyful kid.”
Gabriella was born in China, and adopted by Kelly McElwain when she was about 18 months old. As a single parent, McElwain had difficulty adopting through traditional agencies and turned to one that placed children with disabilities.
When she received her first call about Gabriella, she was told “She doesn’t have any fingers on her right hand.”
“I said, ‘I want her,’” McElwain said. “I didn’t stop and think about whatever it was. I just knew in my heart of hearts that was my baby.”
As she grew, Gabriella began referring to her right hand as “little hand,” and she didn’t use it often.
“Now it’s just habit,” her mom said. “She just uses it all the time.”
She can tie her shoes, hold utensils and open and close her violin case.
“I remember the first time you rode a bike,” her mom said as the two sat in a room in Lubbers’ office.
“Mommy cried,” Gabriella said.
“Because that was her big goal,” McElwain explained. “And that was Dr. Lubbers’ goal, too. That was awesome.”
For her to play the violin, Gabriella’s bow was modified to fit her grip by Lori Wright, her orchestra-class teacher at McCord Middle School in the Worthington district.
Wright used stretchy self-adhesive medical wrap to increase the diameter of the bow’s handle and added blister pads, with the sticky side out, to help Gabriella hold on.
At a recent day at school, the seventh-grader played a sampling of Christmas carols along with other middle-school violinists.
“She is playing the violin every bit as well as everybody else in that room,” Wright said after class. “There are no limitations to what she can do.”
Wright said Gabriella wanted to play the violin because she loved its sound. She and her mom had asked, “Can she learn how to play the violin with this hand?”
Wright said yes, then researched how to make it happen. Gabriella started playing during her fifth-grade year.
McElwain said Gabriella has always had a good attitude about her little hand, never letting it hold her back.
“She’s always been someone who wants to try it herself first, and she will work and work and work at something. She won’t ask for help unless it’s totally impossible,” McElwain said. “She figures out a way.”
Written by JoAnneViviano
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