First, what is a prosthetist and what is an orthotist?
“Prosthetist has a Latin derivation and means replacing a missing part. Orthotist means making the body straight.”
Can you describe the career path that led you here?
“I was a defense engineer helping to make missile systems for the Navy. I decided to use my abilities to help people, instead of making something you hope is not used, and if it is used, it hurts people. For a bunch of years, I was trying to figure out how to be more of use in society. I worked for a citizens’ action group, then for an organization in rural Maine that helped build homes for people who couldn’t afford them. I worked on the issue of homeless shelters, and with deaf mentally ill people in Augusta, Maine, and took care of my own aging dad for about a year. And I did some handyman work as well.
“Finally, I decided I needed another job, so I went to the job service and took the aptitude test. One job field it said I would find fulfilling was prosthetics and orthotics. I went for an informational interview in Waterville, Maine, and was offered a job as a grunt. It entailed cleaning the shop, pouring the plaster, smoothing the edges of braces — the basic stuff. I found Florida International University had a program for prosthetics: It made you board-eligible, then you had to work for somebody for two years and take your test. If you passed, you were certified. Then I did the same thing for orthotics. Presently my daughter has decided to go into the field. Now it requires a master’s degree. It has become more of a profession.”
How have prosthetics changed in your experience?
“When I was getting my training, I worked with a wooden leg or two. Those were amputees from World War II who have passed on. (Today) they build these things from the ground up, using CAD / CAM (computer-aided design and manufacturing) scanning. There are advantages and disadvantages to every new thing, and you have to watch to see if it really improves things for people or not.
“I remember building an arm for a fellow in Western New York state. He sold vegetables, and he wanted to be able to cut vegetables. So I found a method to embed a knife into his artificial arm. He would have to remove his artificial hand, and it would come sliding out by gravity. That was before the security on the airlines. I don’t know if he would get on board an airplane with that nowadays.”
Do you consider yourself a craftsman? A scientist? An artist?
“All of the above. You have to be good at working with your hands. You have to use deductive reasoning to figure out what’s going wrong with a patient. To be a good practitioner, you have to be able to resolve the problems that come up, because conditions change, patients become more active and have need of a better fit, or their size and shape change over time.”
In your spare time you are a sculptor. How does this relate to what you do in your profession?
“It relaxes me. It has helped me in making devices. We use plaster casts all the time, and part of measuring for casts involves putting my hands on the patient. I have found there is an ability called ‘haptic’: The hands can see better than the eyes sometimes. I can modify a cast of a patient that I have measured and touched: I put my hands on it and close my eyes and I can tell whether that’s going to fit the patient right or not, if it fits with the memory.”
What is the most challenging case you’ve had?
“One technical challenge I just finished involved making a limb for an above-knee prosthetic patient, a young man who lost (his leg) in a war. (The limb was) the most technical leg there is, the same we’re fitting our Afghanistan veterans with. The leg was held on by a little vacuum pump, so you had to have a way to seal that vacuum off and have it stay sealed while they’re walking and doing whatever they’re doing. When I fit his original leg, not the fancier one, and he was just learning to walk with it, he came in and showed me a picture of him skydiving with it. It was like, ‘OK, you’ve advanced!’ ”
What inspires you about your work?
“Earlier I taught school, and you’d get feedback (occasionally) that you really had an effect on a student in later years. In this field, I come home every day with that feeling: A patient has come back for a checkup and they’re doing so much better. They’re functioning the way they hoped they could and never thought they could again. That is a daily occurrence.”
Compiled by correspondent Mark Sullivan