Hormone therapy can help short children stand taller

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

Aw, you're so little and cute, Gabrielle Dolbin was always told.

As an 8-year-old, she typically wore out clothes before she outgrew them - and she stood a head shorter than her friends. "We thought she was cute as well," said her mother, Andrea, of Dublin. "But, at a certain point, her height became sort of upsetting."

Doctors realized when Gabrielle was in second grade that she hadn't grown much beyond her kindergarten height of about 3 feet 10 inches. Tests showed that her pituitary gland wasn't producing the growth hormones that her body needed.

Initially, her parents were apprehensive about the prescription: injections of human growth hormone - the performance-enhancing drug used illegally by some athletes. Yet the treatment is relatively common for youngsters with growth disorders. Growth-hormone deficiency - caused by genetic conditions, pituitary-gland problems and other medical circumstances - affects about one in 3,500 American children.

In 2007, her parents decided to give Gabrielle daily injections - out of a concern for her health, not her appearance. "People were saying, 'There's nothing wrong with being short,'" Andrea said. "But it wasn't about Gabrielle being short, if that's how she was supposed to be. The fact was that her body wasn't properly functioning" and that her health could have been affected later.

Gabrielle was among about 500 Nationwide Children's Hospital patients treated last year for growth-hormone deficiency. Most start treatment at about age 10 and end it when they reach puberty, said Dana Hardin, a clinical endocrinologist at the hospital.

Growth-hormone injections aren't designed to make children grow beyond their genetic potential, said Paul Desrosiers, chief of pediatric endocrinology at the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando, Fla. "It's very hard to take a child and make them taller than their parents are," Desrosiers said. "Your goal is to get children to mid-parental height." Without treatment, hormone-deficient youngsters are considered at risk for delayed puberty, osteoporosis and weak muscular development - although such health implications are still being researched, Hardin said.

Gabrielle, who has grown about 7 inches during the past two years, is noticing the benefits of her treatment. At 4 feet 5 inches, the 10-year-old is permitted to ride roller coasters at Cedar Point and try water slides at swimming pools. She ranks near the 20th percentile for her height and stands among peers who towered over her in old pictures. And, more important, "I feel like I have more energy now," she said. "It's helped her self-esteem tremendously," her mother said. "Her friends would make comments; they weren't trying to be mean, but it had started to bother her."

Gabrielle will probably continue the treatment until she hits puberty. At that point, she might measure 5 feet 2 - still shorter than her parents, Andrea and Victor, at 5 feet 6 and 5 feet 11. She would be taller, though, than the 4 feet 10 she might have reached otherwise and tall enough to feel proud. "My friend said, 'Whoa, you're almost taller than me,'" said Gabrielle, smiling. "And she's one of the tallest kids in the class."