How a PRINTER saved this dad’s leg from being amputated

'I'd be the first person in the world to have the operation'

Faced with the prospect of getting his leg amputaed, Reuben was given the miracle of a brand new printed leg.

Reuben Lichter, 27, tells the incredible story in his own words.

Relaxing on the lounge watching TV, I glanced over at my girlfriend, Caity. Six months along with our first bub, she was glowing.
I’m so lucky, I thought. Recently, I’d landed my dream job in sales. And I couldn’t wait to meet our little man. Suddenly, a dull ache began to throb in my right leg. But over the next week, sharp daggers shot up my hip and down to my toes. In constant agony, I had to quit work a fortnight later. What’s wrong with me? I panicked.

Over the next few months, I visited countless doctors. But no-one could give me an answer. Every scan, blood test and X-ray simply came back negative. ‘I think you might have complex regional pain syndrome,’ a GP eventually told me.

Put on steroids, initially I felt better. Then, my health spiralled again. I didn’t want to worry Caity, so I tried to push through. ‘Everything’s going to be fine,’ I soothed. But by the time Caity went into labour, my leg had doubled in size. Rushing to the hospital,
I checked her into the maternity ward, and then limped to emergency. 

‘My girlfriend’s in labour, but I’m in agony,’ I pleaded, pointing at my inflamed flesh. Poked and prodded, I was desperate to get back to Caity. Thankfully, I was wheeled back to her side just in time.

Holding my son, William, for the first time, I stared into his eyes. Love rushed through me, trumping the relentless hammering in my leg. I’ll do anything for you, I promised.Against the doctor’s advice, I spent the next day at home with my family. I wouldn’t miss this for the world, I smiled, cradling Will.

baby william
Reuben holding his son, Will for the first time.

Back at hospital the next day, my leg was sliced open.As the scalpel split the skin, pus poured out. It was disgusting, but I still had no idea how serious my condition was. Transferred to a bigger hospital nearly an hour away, my leg was drained and I was given antibiotics. It’s all uphill from here! I thought.

But then the doctor gave me some devastating news. I’d spontaneously developed something called tibial osteomyelitis.Caused by a bacteria or fungus, it was a severe infection of my bone. Doctors had no idea why I’d developed it, but the majority of my shinbone had been destroyed.

‘We may have to amputate,’ said the doctor. Shocked, I couldn’t believe it would come to that.That’s the worst-case scenario, I reasoned.Besides, I had a baby boy who needed his daddy in one piece.

In and out of hospital, I treasured every moment with Will. Hopping around on crutches, I helped Caity where I could, folding washing and making Will’s bottles.

But our domestic bliss was suddenly interrupted when I was referred to surgeon Dr Michael Wagels. ‘We have two options – above-the-knee amputation or a highly experimental procedure,’ he began. He wanted to transplant a 3D-printed shinbone into my leg. Incredibly, I’d be the first person in the world to undergo the operation. That’s so cool! I thought. ‘Let’s do it!’ I replied, willing to try anything.

Two weeks later, I underwent surgery to have the middle section of my shinbone removed. Small stubs were left either side, ready for the next operation. For two-and-a-half months, I had to wear a splint to keep my remaining bones from snapping. Removing it to have a shower, I had to be very careful. With no support, my right leg wobbled and swayed.

post bone leg
Reuben’s leg post operation.

Luckily, Caity was always there to help. ‘What would I do without you?’ I said. We’d always spoken about getting married, but I knew it was time to pop the question. At the beach one day, I whipped out a ring. ‘Will you marry me?’ I asked her. ‘Yes!’ Caity replied.

Soon after, my new shinbone arrived from Singapore where it had been printed. Knowing that piece of polymer could save my leg was surreal. In August, I was put under again and Dr Wagels drove a rod through my heel, securing it between the stubs of tibia he’d left last time. Then, the 3D mould was fitted around the bar and wrapped in blood vessels and tissue from my fibular and left knee.

Now, my leg had a unique scaffold, which would allow new bone to grow through it. Made of a highly-porous material, the mould would eventually dissolve. It took 14 hours, but Dr Wagels and his incredible team pulled off a world first. ‘They printed Daddy a new leg!’ I told Will afterwards.

Reuben after the operation with his son, Will.

Two months on from the operation, I’m still recovering. But my boy, now nine months, is crawling around the house at lightning speed!‘You’re going to be walking before me,’ I laughed.

It’ll be at least 18 months before I take my first steps. Scarily, I could still lose my leg, but I have faith.
Will’s my biggest motivator. One day, I’ll be walking tall and it will be for my boy.

For more, pick up this week’s copy of that’s life! – on sale now.

on sale now
(Credit: that’s life!)

Related stories