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Just the Same as You and I

Kelsey Dake for The Morning News


When you were a toddler, doctors told your parents you had a “failure to thrive.” Which means: You’re small, and you’re going to be short. Later, when medication helps you grow faster than you’ve ever grown before, the hardest part may be deciding when to stop.

1992, Age Six: 3 Feet, 3.25 Inches, 33.5 Pounds

A pediatrician first recognized my failure to thrive, as he called it, when I was seven months old. An average-sized baby at birth, born by C-section to my petite mother, I had started to gain only ounces between monthly visits.

Conspicuous smallness runs in my family. My mother is barely 4'11". My grandfather (5'8") says we are descended from a Russian clan, the Zichs, none of whom were over five feet tall. But I was emerging as a frontrunner in the shortness contest. At three years old I was 23 pounds; four, 26; five, 28. Most toddlers gain about three to five pounds per year and grow two to three inches. I was growing less than two inches and gaining less than two pounds per year. While my classmates’ torsos stretched and their legs thinned, I never made it onto the government growth charts. I was not too much bigger than an average terrier.

At school everyone always wanted to pick me up. Getting picked up hurt. It became a weird form of bullying and I didn’t want to go to school anymore. My mom coached me at home. “When someone tries to pick you up, just say ‘I am not a doll. I am not a toy.’” We repeated this in the kitchen over grilled cheese. “I am not a toy,” I said, mouth full of Velveeta and Wonder bread.

Most toddlers gain about three to five pounds per year and grow two to three inches. I was growing less than two inches and gaining less than two pounds.

Otherwise, I liked being small. I could sleep under my brother’s bed when I was scared at night. People never forgot me. In typing class, I got to sit on a phone book.

My mother pressed on, consulting doctors and reading medical manuals. A new pediatrician referred us to Dr. Edidin, an endocrinologist who resembled Diane Keaton in looks and demeanor, and so began a long series of tests. First, I had X-rays of my wrists every six months to determine how much my bones were growing. In two years, I grew 1.75 inches, and my bones registered as about two years younger than my actual age in terms of size. This called for more serious testing. I missed two days of third grade to sit in a Barcalounger while being poked with needles and watching Maury. I was also injected with ink for an MRI on my brain. Strangely, I remember these days fondly; they were rare time I got to spend alone with my mom, who had recently gone back to work as a schoolteacher. She took me to White Castle as soon as I was bandaged up.

The diagnosis came with little fanfare. Chromosomal conditions like Turner Syndrome were ruled out; Dr. Edidin explained that it was growth hormone deficiency syndrome: My pituitary gland did not produce natural growth hormone. There’s no known cause of the condition, but there was a benign cyst on my pituitary that could have been the culprit.

Acute GHDS can spur a host of issues, including delayed motor development, thin hair, and chubbiness. I was spared these—“You were a well-proportioned dwarf,” my dad recalls—but my projected height fell between 4'6" and 4'10". Clinically, my condition was called idiopathic short stature, which had a nice, antiseptic ring to it.

1994, Age Eight: 3 Feet, 4.5 Inches, 36 Pounds

A nurse began visiting our house to teach me the art of human injection. Dr. Edidin prescribed growth hormone replacement therapy, specifically a drug called Nutropin. It’s the same thing bodybuilders use to bulk up and older people use to keep their muscles lean and bones dense. Before synthetic growth agents like Nutropin were developed in the mid-1980s, patients were treated with hormones extracted from cadavers. Nutropin can only be administered via needle, and I was to take it by shot six days a week. The nurse had me practice on oranges, swabbing them with alcohol and piercing them with the tiny syringes I was soon to use on myself. I had made this one thing clear throughout the entire process: I did not want anyone else giving me these shots. I would be executing them.

If you ever have to give yourself shots, I cannot recommend the thigh enough.

The nurse gave me four choices of injection location: arm, abdomen, thigh, butt. I started with the arm, but it’s difficult to give yourself a shot there. Also, it hurts. The nurse said to try the butt, since it’s fattier. Besides the strangeness of my mother giving me a shot in my butt, this didn’t hurt any less. Abdomen was out; my torso was nothing substantial.

So thigh it was, and it was wonderful. If you ever have to give yourself shots, I cannot recommend the thigh enough. I preferred the left one but rotated as much as I could. Before long there were bruised divots on each side of my leg where the repeated injections took place. But I was starting to grow, and not just vertically. I had to clip my fingernails every other day, if not every day; I got a haircut once a month. I could only wear elastic-waist pants.

My dad was the mixmaster, the drug lord. Each night he shuffled to the kitchen to concoct the appropriate solution for my injection, mixing powdered and liquid human growth hormone. He delivered my shot to me, alcohol swab and all, while I watched Jay Leno. A mountain of syringes accumulated on my nightstand, spilling onto the floor. To this day, I still find them in my childhood bedroom.

2011, Age 25: 5 Feet, 2.5 Inches, 105 Pounds

Growth hormone deficiency syndrome can sometimes continue into adulthood; no one really knows what will happen to my class of synthetic hormone-takers, physically or psychologically, as we age. Writing in New York Magazine, Stephen S. Hall noted a European study that juxtaposed adults who had taken growth hormone as children against ones who had not: “They ended up essentially the same psychologically in adulthood—except that, oddly, the HGH users were less likely to have romantic partners than nonusers.” Other studies have shown that it can be difficult for adults who used HGH as children to lose weight.

Hall also pointed out a phenomenon of monied New York parents injecting their short children with the hormone so they can “get ahead in life,” including ones who didn’t have a medical need for the drug but were just small. These incidences of those using growth hormone like hair dye—to improve their vanity—shed light on the drug’s darker side. As New York Times reporter John Schwartz writes in his book Short: Walking Tall When You’re Not Tall at All, pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly (maker of Nutropin) used the idea that shorter children have societal problems to its advantage:

“When Eli Lilly was telling the government that it should be allowed to sell its growth hormone to kids who were simply small,” he writes, “it presented studies that supposedly showed that short kids are prone to teasing and bullying and ‘exclusion’ and they suffer from ‘social isolation’ and a ‘perception of lower competence.’”

My total treatment cost more than $150,000, most of which was covered by insurance. Still, that’s about $7,500 per inch.

A 2006 Chicago Tribune article discussed the “thorny issue” of prescribing growth hormone to naturally short kids. The blame here falls on the parents—the ones who pressure doctors to fix their little children, to get them to a height that won’t be a so-called detriment to their overall development.

Some doctors push back. Joseph Cernich, director of endocrine clinical services at Children's Mercy Hospital, told the Tribune that research shows short people “as adults enjoy life as much as everybody else” and that most doctors aren’t in a rush to supply small children with the hormone.

My total treatment cost more than $150,000, most of which was covered by insurance. Still, that’s about $7,500 per inch I grew. I took a small-sized house’s worth of drugs just to be of a “normal” height. Add that to my college education and I am a costly human being.

I could have not taken Nutropin. My parents didn’t pressure me to take it, and neither did Dr. Edidin. It was my choice. Even at eight, I was pretty into the idea. I thought it was cool; I just worried about getting too big and losing sense of who I was. But the body isn’t crazy like that. I was just giving it something it didn’t have, and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to do so.

My mother often tells a story about her 25-year high school reunion. She encountered an old classmate who wouldn’t stop yammering about how—surprise!—she was still short. He then put his elbow on her head and rested his head on it, as if she were a bar table. She recently told me that she never thought twice about giving me the chance to be taller.

1996, Age 10: 4 Feet, 2 Inches, 49 Pounds

Sixth grade. First and second period I had literature. We were reading The Outsiders. “What type of person is Ponyboy?” the teacher asked. I reached into my backpack for my copy of the book, and out tumbled an orange-tipped syringe, the kind we’d been shown the week before in drug education class. “These are used by heroin addicts,” the teacher had said. “If you ever see one, don’t touch it.”

I swept the syringe back into my bag but it was too late. Daniel Kornstein, across the aisle, had seen my paraphernalia. His eyes bulged from his head. Thankfully I was wearing long sleeves to obfuscate any evidence of track marks. Once friendly playground acquaintances, we never spoke again.

Besides becoming a suspected drug addict, in junior high I also started wearing a bra. Most girls were excited by this; I thought it was disgusting. In a way, being small is living in a cocoon of childhood; I wanted to stay there forever. My typical outfit included at least two undershirts to camouflage my emerging chest. I am too short to be a woman, I thought, and I will do whatever I can to circumvent that fate.

Dr. Edidin was less worried about my bust than my growth plates, the elastic cartilage at the end of a bone that diminishes with age. The onset of puberty after two years of injections indicated that the plates were wearing away; when puberty arrives and the bones start to come together, the window for rapid, continual development closes. I was almost five feet, but that was short of my self-selected height of 5'3". There was an option, Dr. Edidin said, called Lupron Depot, which would stop my developmental hormones from entering my pituitary gland, stalling puberty to keep my growth plates open indefinitely. Lupron Depot is also used to treat prostate cancer and adrenal disease in ferrets.

I considered this medical intervention a sign from the gods. Bring it on, I said. I dreamt of a tampon-free future in which I could always wear boys’ pants.

Then the Lupron shot arrived. As decreed, I gave it to myself. But the needle was an inch and a half long, with a gauge so large you could see up the hole. If my daily HGH injection was a Toyota Corolla, Lupron Depot was a Mack truck. The solution was thick and milky—and as I learned, the thicker the injection solution, the greater the pain. I administered it on the floor of my parents’ bedroom. It was an agonizing process. My thigh swelled with the burning white liquid. I injected milliliter by milliliter. I gave it to myself once a month for the remaining duration of my treatment; my mom usually bribed me with McDonald’s to take it.

I suppose I could have stopped treatment at five feet and saved myself the discomfort of that wicked shot. But the grand experiment of my height was working, and the obvious results were intoxicating. So much had been invested in my development; why not go a bit further? We had the resources—the science—to do so. Each month, when my mom marked my height with a pencil on the kitchen doorjamb, we celebrated a small success. Reaching 5'3" was not just my goal, but our goal. I suspect it’s the height she would have liked to have been.


Short people have many advantages in life. For example, they are typically very good gymnasts. They can get kids’ discounts at the movies. Some believe they live longer. My mother still employs this trick: When solicitors ring her doorbell, she stands behind the frosted window next to the front door and says “I’m sorry, my parents aren’t home. I can’t answer the door right now.”

Many people I admire are tiny. Barbara Boxer is 4'11", same for Harriet Beecher Stowe. Pat Benatar and Joan Didion are 5' even. Gandhi was 5'3".

But there’s not much that bonds short people together. There’s no short culture (not to be confused with dwarf culture, of which there’s loads). You don’t meet another short person and say, “Hey! We’re both short!” You just look into their eyes (because you can). But it’s a sea of cultural of murkiness between dwarves, who get their own conventions, and the average, who get to rule the world. Short people have little to bond them together besides a Randy Newman song and alleged societal adversity.

There is a website called shortsupport where the vertically challenged can gather to discuss their fates. An entire section of the site is dedicated to news items covering that “caustic” Randy Newman song. Another section analyzes your height and likeliness to find a mate. (“The author wishes to stress that this tool should only be used to make generalization about the importance of the height factor in finding a significant other,” a blurb on the section reads. “There are always exceptions and everyone deserves love, no matter how tall they stand.”)

There are also a bevy of personal essays about being short. My favorite was written by a man named Steven Breen. “I am both disheartened and intrigued by the nature of essays that have been written concerning Heightism,” he writes. “I have only recently taken an interest in Heightism because I have met very few men my height and the Media has broadcast a number of shows portraying very depressed and almost suicidal short men. I have been oblivious to Heightism because I never really considered myself as short. I am physically short but intellectually I am anyone's equal.”

He goes on to say that he was prompted to embrace his shortness by Lord of the Rings. “I read Lord of the Rings (3 times) and I was inspired—it made me realize that anyone can achieve anything, no matter how daunting. I would be so happy to see shorter people not defined by their height but by their rich and multi-faceted characters!! If only small people didn’t entrap themselves with a small mindset.”

Of course, the same can be said for tall people, average people, fat people, thin people, doctors, pharmaceutical companies and pushy New York parents. Alas.

2002, Age 16: 5 Feet, 2 Inches, 103 Pounds

I don’t remember my last shot, only my last visit with Dr. Edidin. “Well, it looks like we’re done,” she said. It was as anticlimactic as growing 20 inches over six years can be. I was 15, 5'2", and satisfied. The height seemed a happy medium between the low-to-the-ground world I was used to and normalcy.

In the end, the only thing I hate about being tall is that I tower above my mother.


TMN Editor Leah Finnegan is from Illinois by way of Texas. She splits her time between New York City and her website. More by Leah Finnegan

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