At 30 years old, Jay Michael Thomas, or Jaybird to those who know and love him, is learning to walk correctly – and without pain – for the first time.
Jay has Down Syndrome and autism, and he was also born with dysplasia of his right hip, though his parents didn’t know it until he was 10. A prominent orthopedic surgeon in St. Louis informed the family that Jay was not a candidate for surgery and that he would probably end up in a wheelchair.
“We just accepted the news. We had greater concerns that took priority,” Jay’s mother, Gail Rissi Thomas, said. She explained that when they learned about Jay’s hip, he was battling a serious lung infection that nearly claimed his life.
Through the years, Jay compensated for his hip deformity by altering his gait and walking on his toes. However, the pain became increasingly debilitating and, over the last year, it became disabling. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Jay was living at a group home in Herrin where he worked various jobs. He came home on the weekends until that was no longer possible due to COVID-19 restrictions, so his parents moved him back home to West Frankfort.
“When Jay returned home, we really realized how much he was hurting, and we started saying ‘we’ve got to do something’ to see if someone could help him,” his father, Michael Thomas, said. “He was using a walker, and we would hear him mumbling ‘almost there, almost there’ as he ambled from one place to the next. It had been almost 20 years since we had learned about his hip dysplasia – maybe things had changed.”
During an appointment at the Sarah Bush Lincoln Bonutti Clinic, Michael shared his son’s plight. He was encouraged to bring Jay in for an examination and X-rays. Michael and
Gail were thrilled when Orthopedic Surgeon Peter Bonutti, MD,
agreed to accept Jay as a patient and perform hip replacement surgery after careful consideration. However, Dr. Bonutti cautioned them that it would be a difficult procedure.
“He told us there was a risk that it wouldn’t be successful, but even if it didn’t work, he could still do something that would fix the problem. The second option would mean that Jay would have a crutch for the rest of his life, but he wouldn’t be in pain – and even that was a better option.”
Jay’s parents didn’t hesitate to schedule the procedure. “I had had two successful surgeries at the Bonutti Clinic, so I was confident that Jay was going to get good care, especially if Dr. Bonutti was doing the surgery. We didn’t want to go anywhere else,” Michael said. Having practiced for more than 30 years, Dr. Bonutti brings world-class musculoskeletal care and cutting-edge research to Illinois, attracting patients from 41 states and six countries.
When word got out about Jay’s impending surgery, the town of West Frankfort rallied behind him. His former high school aide and other supporters organized a “drive-by parade,” complete with his favorite music, to wish him well before his surgery. “I was surprised to see so many friends and acquaintances take part in Jayʼs personal parade, to wish him well and to shower him with balloons, cards, and gifts to show him again that they think he is special,” Gail said. The town had hosted a similar celebration when he graduated from high school in 2012. “As his older brother says, ‘Jay has a way of bringing out the best in people,’” Gail said.
After clearing COVID-19 testing, Jay underwent hip replacement surgery at Sarah Bush Lincoln on July 27. “After the surgery, Dr. Bonutti looked like he’d been through a battle, but his first words were ‘we’ve got a hip in,’ Michael recalled. Dr. Bonutti said that he wouldn’t be certain of the outcome for a couple of days, but he was very confident that it would be successful.
Both parents were impressed after learning more about the challenging procedure. Jay’s hip joint was so deformed that there was barely any bone in parts of his socket. “Dr. Bonutti was somehow able to work his magic to compensate for the missing bone so the artificial hip would adhere,” Michael said. In addition, Dr. Bonutti discovered a stress fracture in Jay’s femur that he had to fix before he could begin to work on his hip. “When you see the ‘before’ and ‘after’ X-rays, you wonder how he did it. It looks like a normal hip now,” Michael said.
Jay returned home after an overnight stay in the hospital and started physical therapy right away. Gail and Michael are especially grateful to Bonutti Clinic Physician Assistant Nick Williams, PA-C, who went above and beyond to address their questions and concerns.
The family was elated when X-rays confirmed everything they had hoped for; there were no signs of dislocation three weeks post-surgery. Jay was cleared to start full weight-bearing activity, and he started to learn to walk without the aid of a walker. “Nick told us it would take some time, as they have corrected his gait, the length of his leg and everything about the way he has walked for 30 years,” Gail said.
While Jay’s recovery hasn’t come without challenges, he is exceeding expectations. At his October appointment, Dr. Bonutti was thrilled to watch Jay walk up and down the hallway without his walker. Dr. Bonutti told his parents “‘Jay is doing wonderfully,’” Gail recalled. “This is the first time Jay has walked with two legs that are the same length. He’s not in any kind of pain and he’s getting really close to getting his heels down where they’re supposed to be.”
Michael and Gail are quick to sing Dr. Bonutti’s praises. Michael said, “He knew that Jay was in pain, and he thought he could do something for him. He gave us an honest assessment, along with the odds that it might not be successful, and I really respect that.”
“At the same time, I knew he could do it,” Michael added. “He needed a challenge and I think that’s the kind of doctor he is; he’s not satisfied. He wants to conquer and explore new frontiers and we can’t thank him enough for how much he’s helped our son.”
To make an appointment with any of the Sarah Bush Lincoln orthopedists, call 217 342-3400 for the SBL Bonutti Clinic, or 217 238-3435 for SBL Orthopedics & Sports Medicine.