At first, Miriam Zachariah's teenage nephew Theo, who was born female, came out as gay. But he "presented as very gender fluid," she says, which suggested that he hadn't made "a clear choice one way or another."
Families, physicians, and psychologists have pondered whether it's better, neutral, or worse to postpone gender transitions until adulthood.
Zachariah decided to ask her nephew, "Do you think you might be trans?" While he answered "no," the question "broke something open for him," she recalls.
A month later, at age 13, he began identifying as trans. And at 14 1/2, he started undergoing gender transition with an endocrine-blocking injection. More recently, at age 16, he added testosterone injections, and soon he won't need the endocrine blocker any longer.
"His voice is deepening, and his muscle mass is growing," says Zachariah, a principal of two elementary schools in Toronto who became her nephew's legal guardian while he was starting to transition.
There are many medical and bioethical aspects associated with the transition to one's self-identified gender, especially when the process involves children and adolescents. Families, physicians, and psychologists have pondered whether it's better, neutral, or worse to postpone the transition until adulthood, while remaining cognizant of the potential consequences to puberty suppression with cross-sex hormones and the irreversibility of transgender surgeries.
Studies have found a higher prevalence of mental health issues among transgender and gender nonconforming youth, particularly if they are unable to express themselves in the self-identified gender. Research also has shown that transgender adults in the process of transitioning initially experienced worse mental health problems than their adolescent counterparts.
The Endocrine Society, a professional medical organization that provides recommendations for clinical practice, stipulates in its guidelines that the diagnosis of gender identity be limited to qualified mental health professionals for those under age 18. This is important because children are still evolving in their thought processes and capacity to articulate themselves, says endocrinologist Joshua Safer, inaugural executive director of the Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.
A transition can begin safely in gradations, by allowing young children to experiment with haircuts and clothes of either gender before puberty. "If it just ends up being a stage of life, we haven't done anything permanent," says Safer, who is president of the United States Professional Association for Transgender Health as well as steering committee co-chair of TransNet, the international transgender research consortium.
After changes in appearance, the next step would be to try puberty blockers. Also used to halt precocious puberty, the injections are "a reasonably established intervention" for transgender youth, although there are some concerns that the drugs could interfere with bone health in the future, he says.
From a mental health standpoint, "hormones for youth who qualify for them have offered a tremendous boost in well-being and also a reduction in anxiety, depression, and suicidality that often plague transgender youth when they experience their bodies as totally discordant with their self-knowledge of their authentic gender," says psychologist Diane Ehrensaft, director of mental health in the Child and Adolescent Gender Center at Benioff Children's Hospital of the University of California at San Francisco.
Many of these youth have either known about or have been living in their authentic gender since early childhood; others discovered their true identities in adolescence, often with the onset of puberty, says Ehrensaft, associate professor of pediatrics. The effects of gender-affirming hormone treatments are at least partially reversible, she adds, whereas surgical procedures are irreversible. Regardless of reversibility, best practices include careful consideration of all interventions to ensure they are in a youth's best interests in promoting gender health and general well-being.
When a child exhibits signs of gender dysphoria, parents and guardians should at a minimum take these feelings seriously.
In determining readiness for a transgender operation, an assessment of maturity is as important as chronological age, says Loren Schechter, plastic surgeon and director of the Center for Gender Confirmation Surgery at Weiss Memorial Hospital in Chicago. With the consent of a parent or guardian, he commonly performs mastectomies on adolescents at age 17 and sometimes earlier, based on the clinical circumstances and along with a multidisciplinary team that includes a primary care provider and a mental health professional.
"Typically, before surgery, people have had the opportunity and time to consider their options," Schechter says, observing that "the incidence of regret or changing one's mind is extremely low." Others may opt to transition socially but not surgically. "We recognize that gender is not binary," he explains. Some individuals may not "discreetly fit into male or female" in how they perceive themselves.
When a child exhibits signs of gender dysphoria, parents and guardians should at a minimum take these feelings seriously, not dismiss them. They may want to enlist the assistance of a gender identity clinic to address the social environment and guide the child in exploring activities with the self-identified gender, says Kelly McBride Folkers, research associate in the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University School of Medicine.
At one end of the spectrum, some parents and guardians are overzealous in supporting their child's gender-identity pursuits while the youngster is still in an early phase of decision-making. On the flipside, other parents and guardians are not at all supportive, leaving the child at risk for long-term psychological effects, says Folkers, who is also associate director of the High School Bioethics Project at NYU, an educational program that aids teachers and students in examining ethical and conceptual concepts across various areas, one of which is gender.
"It's important to help children navigate through this process early, so that they have all of the social and familial support they need if and when they choose to seek medical options for gender affirmation later," she says.
There are various reasons why children and adolescents want to explore the opposite gender when they reach puberty. "It's a small percentage who will persist and insist and be consistent with that opposite gender identity," says Nicole Mihalopoulos, adolescent medicine physician and associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City.
Turning to a social work support system can help bring clarity for teens, parents, and guardians.
For those youth, it's appropriate to start the conversation about a medication to block puberty, but without actually promoting a hormonal transition to the opposite gender, in order for the child to further explore living as the opposite gender. "Children need to start at puberty because we need to know that their bodies are physiologically normal," Mihalopoulos says.
A lack of breast development in girls or a lack of testicular development in boys could point to an abnormality in the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, or ovaries/testicles. "That needs to be identified and corrected first," she explains, "before I would say, 'Let's start on the medical transition path of the alternate gender.' "
For parents and guardians, says Theo Zachariah's aunt Miriam, it's very tempting to misinterpret a child's struggling attempts to articulate being trans as an adolescent identity crisis. That's when turning to a social work support system can bring clarity. A youth mental health agency with experience in trans issues made a positive impact on Theo's family through one-on-one counseling and in groups for teens and parents.
"The dialogue they were able to engage in with my nephew, his mom and us," she says, was very instrumental "in helping us all figure out what to do and how to navigate the change."
In December 1958, on a vacation with his wife in Kenya, a 28-year-old British tea broker named Robin Cavendish became suddenly ill. Neither he nor his wife Diana knew it at the time, but Robin's illness would change the course of medical history forever.
Robin was rushed to a nearby hospital in Kenya where the medical staff delivered the crushing news: Robin had contracted polio, and the paralysis creeping up his body was almost certainly permanent. The doctors placed Robin on a ventilator through a tracheotomy in his neck, as the paralysis from his polio infection had rendered him unable to breathe on his own – and going off the average life expectancy at the time, they gave him only three months to live. Robin and Diana (who was pregnant at the time with their first child, Jonathan) flew back to England so he could be admitted to a hospital. They mentally prepared to wait out Robin's final days.
But Robin did something unexpected when he returned to the UK – just one of many things that would astonish doctors over the next several years: He survived. Diana gave birth to Jonathan in February 1959 and continued to visit Robin regularly in the hospital with the baby. Despite doctors warning that he would soon succumb to his illness, Robin kept living.
After a year in the hospital, Diana suggested something radical: She wanted Robin to leave the hospital and live at home in South Oxfordshire for as long as he possibly could, with her as his nurse. At the time, this suggestion was unheard of. People like Robin who depended on machinery to keep them breathing had only ever lived inside hospital walls, as the prevailing belief was that the machinery needed to keep them alive was too complicated for laypeople to operate. But Diana and Robin were up for the challenges – and the risks. Because his ventilator ran on electricity, if the house were to unexpectedly lose power, Diana would either need to restore power quickly or hand-pump air into his lungs to keep him alive.
Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
In an interview as an adult, Jonathan Cavendish reflected on his parents' decision to live outside the hospital on a ventilator: "My father's mantra was quality of life," he explained. "He could have stayed in the hospital, but he didn't think that was as good of a life as he could manage. He would rather be two minutes away from death and living a full life."
After a few years of living at home, however, Robin became tired of being confined to his bed. He longed to sit outside, to visit friends, to travel – but had no way of doing so without his ventilator. So together with his friend Teddy Hall, a professor and engineer at Oxford University, the two collaborated in 1962 to create an entirely new invention: a battery-operated wheelchair prototype with a ventilator built in. With this, Robin could now venture outside the house – and soon the Cavendish family became famous for taking vacations. It was something that, by all accounts, had never been done before by someone who was ventilator-dependent. Robin and Hall also designed a van so that the wheelchair could be plugged in and powered during travel. Jonathan Cavendish later recalled a particular family vacation that nearly ended in disaster when the van broke down outside of Barcelona, Spain:
"My poor old uncle [plugged] my father's chair into the wrong socket," Cavendish later recalled, causing the electricity to short. "There was fire and smoke, and both the van and the chair ground to a halt." Johnathan, who was eight or nine at the time, his mother, and his uncle took turns hand-pumping Robin's ventilator by the roadside for the next thirty-six hours, waiting for Professor Hall to arrive in town and repair the van. Rather than being panicked, the Cavendishes managed to turn the vigil into a party. Townspeople came to greet them, bringing food and music, and a local priest even stopped by to give his blessing.
Robin had become a pioneer, showing the world that a person with severe disabilities could still have mobility, access, and a fuller quality of life than anyone had imagined. His mission, along with Hall's, then became gifting this independence to others like himself. Robin and Hall raised money – first from the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust, and then from the British Department of Health – to fund more ventilator chairs, which were then manufactured by Hall's company, Littlemore Scientific Engineering, and given to fellow patients who wanted to live full lives at home. Robin and Hall used themselves as guinea pigs, testing out different models of the chairs and collaborating with scientists to create other devices for those with disabilities. One invention, called the Possum, allowed paraplegics to control things like the telephone and television set with just a nod of the head. Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
Robin went on to enjoy a long and happy life with his family at their house in South Oxfordshire, surrounded by friends who would later attest to his "down-to-earth" personality, his sense of humor, and his "irresistible" charm. When he died peacefully at his home in 1994 at age 64, he was considered the world's oldest-living person who used a ventilator outside the hospital – breaking yet another barrier for what medical science thought was possible.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In June 2012, Kirstie Ennis was six months into her second deployment to Afghanistan and recently promoted to sergeant. The helicopter gunner and seven others were three hours into a routine mission of combat resupplies and troop transport when their CH-53D helicopter went down hard.
Miraculously, all eight people onboard survived, but Ennis' injuries were many and severe. She had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, crushed cervical discs, facial fractures, deep lacerations and traumatic brain injury. Despite a severely fractured ankle, doctors managed to save her foot, for a while at least.
In November 2015, after three years of constant pain and too many surgeries to count, Ennis relented. She elected to undergo a lower leg amputation but only after she completed the 1,000-mile, 72-day Walking with the Wounded journey across the UK.
On Veteran's Day of that year, on the other side of the country, orthopedic surgeon Cato Laurencin announced a moonshot challenge he was setting out to achieve on behalf of wounded warriors like Ennis: the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) Project.
Laurencin, who is a University of Connecticut professor of chemical, materials and biomedical engineering, teamed up with experts in tissue bioengineering and regenerative medicine from Harvard, Columbia, UC Irvine and SASTRA University in India. Laurencin and his colleagues at the Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering made a bold commitment to regenerate an entire limb within 15 years – by the year 2030.
Dr. Cato Laurencin pictured in his office at UConn.
Photo Credit: UConn
Regenerative Engineering -- A Whole New Field
Limb regeneration in humans has been a medical and scientific fascination for decades, with little to show for the effort. However, Laurencin believes that if we are to reach the next level of 21st century medical advances, this puzzle must be solved.
An estimated 185,000 people undergo upper or lower limb amputation every year. Despite the significant advances in electromechanical prosthetics, these individuals still lack the ability to perform complex functions such as sensation for tactile input, normal gait and movement feedback. As far as Laurencin is concerned, the only clinical answer that makes sense is to regenerate a whole functional limb.
Laurencin feels other regeneration efforts were hampered by their siloed research methods with chemists, surgeons, engineers all working separately. Success, he argues, requires a paradigm shift to a trans-disciplinary approach that brings together cutting-edge technologies from disparate fields such as biology, material sciences, physical, chemical and engineering sciences.
As the only surgeon ever inducted into the academies of Science, Medicine and Innovation, Laurencin is uniquely suited for the challenge. He is regarded as the founder of Regenerative Engineering, defined as the convergence of advanced materials sciences, stem cell sciences, physics, developmental biology and clinical translation for the regeneration of complex tissues and organ systems.
But none of this is achievable without early clinician participation across scientific fields to develop new technologies and a deeper understanding of how to harness the body's innate regenerative capabilities. "When I perform a surgical procedure or something is torn or needs to be repaired, I count on the body being involved in regenerating tissue," he says. "So, understanding how the body works to regenerate itself and harnessing that ability is an important factor for the regeneration process."
The Birth of the Vision
Laurencin's passion for regeneration began when he was a sports medicine fellow at Cornell University Medical Center in the early 1990s. There he saw a significant number of injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the major ligament that stabilizes the knee. He believed he could develop a better way to address those injuries using biomaterials to regenerate the ligament. He sketched out a preliminary drawing on a napkin one night over dinner. He has spent the next 30 years regenerating tissues, including the patented L-C ligament.
As chair of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Virginia during the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Laurencin treated military personnel who survived because of improved helmets, body armor and battlefield medicine but were left with more devastating injuries, including traumatic brain injuries and limb loss.
"I was so honored to care for them and I so admired their steadfast courage that I became determined to do something big for them," says Laurencin.
When he tells people about his plans to regrow a limb, he gets a lot of eye rolls, which he finds amusing but not discouraging. Growing bone cells was relatively new when he was first focused on regenerating bone in 1987 at MIT; in 2007 he was well on his way to regenerating ligaments at UVA when many still doubted that ligaments could even be reconstructed. He and his team have already regenerated torn rotator cuff tendons and ACL ligaments using a nano-textured fabric seeded with stem cells.
Even as a finalist for the $4 million NIH Pioneer Award for high-risk/high-reward research, he faced a skeptical scientific audience in 2014. "They said, 'Well what do you plan to do?' I said 'I plan to regenerate a whole limb in people.' There was a lot of incredulousness. They stared at me and asked a lot of questions. About three days later, I received probably the best score I've ever gotten on an NIH grant."
In the Thick of the Science
Humans are born with regenerative abilities--two-year-olds have regrown fingertips--but lose that ability with age. Salamanders are the only vertebrates that can regenerate lost body parts as adults; axolotl, the rare Mexican salamander, can grow extra limbs.
The axolotl is important as a model organism because it is a four-footed vertebrate with a similar body plan to humans. Mapping the axolotl genome in 2018 enhanced scientists' genetic understanding of their evolution, development, and regeneration. Being easy to breed in captivity allowed the HEAL team to closely study these amphibians and discover a new cell type they believe may shed light on how to mimic the process in humans.
"Whenever limb regeneration takes place in the salamander, there is a huge amount of something called heparan sulfate around that area," explains Laurencin. "We thought, 'What if this heparan sulfate is the key ingredient to allowing regeneration to take place?' We found these groups of cells that were interspersed in tissues during the time of regeneration that seemed to have connections to each other that expressed this heparan sulfate."
Called GRID (Groups that are Regenerative, Interspersed and Dendritic), these cells were also recently discovered in mice. While GRID cells don't regenerate as well in mice as in salamanders, finding them in mammals was significant.
"If they're found in mice. we might be able to find these in humans in some form," Laurencin says. "We think maybe it will help us figure out regeneration or we can create cells that mimic what grid cells do and create an artificial grid cell."
What Comes Next?
Laurencin and his team have individually engineered and made every single tissue in the lower limb, including bone, cartilage, ligament, skin, nerve, blood vessels. Regenerating joints and joint tissue is the next big mile marker, which Laurencin sees as essential to regenerating a limb that functions and performs in the way he envisions.
"Using stem cells and amnion tissue, we can regenerate joints that are damaged, and have severe arthritis," he says. "We're making progress on all fronts, and making discoveries we believe are going to be helping people along the way."
That focus and advancement is vital to Ennis. After laboring over the decision to have her leg amputated below the knee, she contracted MRSA two weeks post-surgery. In less than a month, she went from a below-the-knee-amputee to a through-the-knee amputee to an above-the-knee amputee.
"A below-the-knee amputation is night-and-day from above-the-knee," she said. "You have to relearn everything. You're basically a toddler."
Kirstie Ennis pictured in July 2020.
Photo Credit: Ennis' Instagram
The clock is ticking on the timeline Laurencin set for himself. Nine years might seem like forever if you're doing time but it might appear fleeting when you're trying to create something that's never been done before. But Laurencin isn't worried. He's convinced time is on his side.
"Every week, I receive an email or a call from someone, maybe a mother whose child has lost a finger or I'm in communication with a disabled American veteran who wants to know how the progress is going. That energizes me to continue to work hard to try to create these sorts of solutions because we're talking about people and their lives."
He devotes about 60 hours a week to the project and the roughly 100 students, faculty and staff who make up the HEAL team at the Convergence Institute seem acutely aware of what's at stake and appear equally dedicated.
"We're in the thick of the science in terms of making this happen," says Laurencin. "We've moved from making the impossible possible to making the possible a reality. That's what science is all about."