Local teen makes a splash after life-changing surgery

January 10, 2014

Watching 16-year-old Jeffrey Leggio glide across the pool, it's hard to believe he only started swimming three years ago.

In fact, three years ago, he would never take his shirt off in front of people.

"Embarrassed I guess," said Jeffrey

He was born with a chest deformity called 'pectus excavatum' or sunken chest.

Dr. Kirk Reichard of A.I. duPont Hospital for Children says it's fairly common, and for some it doesn't cause any problems.

For others, it can cause extreme fatigue or shortness of breath with exercise. Such was the case when Jeffrey started playing baseball.

"It was the smallest amount of exertion and he kept saying, 'Mom, I can't breathe, I can't breathe," said Michelle Leggio, mother.

So when he was 13, Jeffrey underwent surgery. Through a small incision, doctors inserted a rod into his chest.

"We tunnel it underneath the skin then behind the breast bone and then we flip it into place and it pulls the breast bone out where it belongs," said Dr. Reichard.

He says the procedure has become much less invasive over the years and there are new ways to help manage the pain.

The rod stays put for three years. However just three months after it was inserted, Jeffrey hit the water.

Not only did his breathing improve but a hidden talent was also revealed.

"By the end of the season he was getting 1st and 2nd place, the coach's award," said his mom.

Recently the rod was removed and Jeffrey now swims on several teams. He's also trying out for the national team and has Olympic aspirations.

Without the surgery, Jeffrey says he doesn't know where he would be.

"It's given me a lot of great opportunities," he said.

"It has completely changed our life. What we thought was going to be the most difficult thing for us to get through turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to us," said Leggio.

As for never wanting to take his shirt off, his mother says now it's difficult to get him to wear a shirt.

The surgery itself is not for everyone with this condition. It's only recommended when it affects someone's quality of life physically or emotionally.

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