By P.K. Daniel
A number of amputees, many inspired by the expert care they received after losing a limb, have been motivated to pursue careers in prosthetics, where they can provide patients with a unique and personal perspective. Four of these practitioners shared their stories with.
Losing a limb–be it to cancer, traumatic injury, diabetes, or something else—is a life-altering experience. But having a proper-fitting prosthesis can help make the transition smoother. And an experienced prosthetist, who through fittings, adjustments, and fixes, forms a long-term relationship with the patient, is an integral part of the process. Who better to understand the process, and the challenges, than a fellow amputee?
It’s widely known that many amputees enter this field because of their personal journeys. Four such prosthetists shared their stories with LER. Their journeys are unique, but all have a common thread—the ability to empathize with their patients and the gratification they feel when seeing the positive impact they’ve had.
STEVE MILLER, CPO
Sharing the ‘limitless’ benefits of a good-fitting prosthetic device
Steve Miller, CPO, has a love for athletics and the outdoors that began as a youth. He played baseball, basketball, and football. He hunted and fished. He rode horses, motorcycles, and kneeboards. It was while he was on the water riding a kneeboard behind a ski boat that the 11-year-old noticed a painful lump on the back of his knee that prevented him from completely sitting back on his heels.
Miller was diagnosed with an osteosarcoma. His parents opted for rotationplasty to help him maintain his active lifestyle. This alternative procedure to limb-sparing surgery is regularly performed on young patients with bone cancer of the distal femur to preserve knee function by rotating and reattaching the ankle joint at the distal end of the femur after removing a portion of the limb.
Miller had to travel from his home in Savannah, GA, to Shands Hospital in Gainesville, FL, a four-hour trip, to undergo the surgery. He was fitted with a prosthesis that turned out to be ill-fitting and problematic. For a year, Miller’s family would endure frequent treks to Gainesville for repeated adjustments.
“We ended up going back and forth for every irritation that I had,” Miller said. “It was pretty tough, not just for me but for my parents. I was playing sports and at night I would take off my prosthetic socks and just have blisters and a lot of pain. It wasn’t good. I felt a little depressed.”
Running would cause more than just blistering. Miller’s prosthesis would break down.
“It was just not well-made,” he said.
Miller needed a properly designed and fitted prosthesis to restore complete function, and he needed a local solution. His family was introduced to Alfred Kritter, CPO, FAAOP, and vice president of Clinical Services for Hanger in Savannah.
“Kritter was very familiar with rotationplasty surgery,” Miller said. “He made me a prosthesis and it was like night and day. At an early age I knew what it meant to have a really good-fitting prosthesis. I was limitless. I could run, play, and do sports, and I wasn’t in pain all the time. That’s what triggered in my mind to go into prosthetics, knowing how a prosthetist can really affect someone’s life.”
After being fitted with his new prosthesis, Miller was able to play sports, including high school football and baseball. It was during high school that Miller started working with Kritter, cleaning up his shop.
“I started learning about prosthetics,” he said. “[Kritter] took me under his wing. I knew right then that that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
After getting his undergraduate degree in kinesiology at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Miller studied prosthetics at the University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas. He then went to work for Hanger Clinic in Savannah. He has been there for 16 years designing prosthetics. He enjoys working with all patients, but he’s partial to kids.
“Working with kids who’ve had the same type of amputation I have had I truly, truly love, because I know I can help them. And because I’ve had years of experience walking on this type of prosthesis,” Miller said.
JOHN “MO” KENNEY, CPO
Traumatic childhood accident became ‘a blessing in disguise’
John “Mo” Kenney, CPO, owns 10 O&P practices in the Kentucky-Indiana area that specialize in taking care of amputees. Kenney Orthopedics also provides international humanitarian care on an annual basis, including operating a clinic in Queretaro, Mexico.
Kenney is the past president of the American Board for Certification in Orthotics, Prosthetics & Pedorthics (ABC), as well as the Kentucky Orthotics and Prosthetics Association. He is the current ABC examiner in orthotics and prosthetics and has served on the board of directors of the Amputee Coalition, which helps empower amputees to achieve their full potential.
While he has been a decorated and well-established member of the orthotics and prosthetics community, Kenney’s story began in a residential community on the island of Guam when he was just 7 years old. He was outside when a teenage driver lost control of his vehicle and ran into Kenney. The resulting trauma led to a below-knee amputation on his right leg.
The experience was devastating, Kenney said.
“I still to this day very vividly remember the emotions of when I realized I lost my leg,” he said. “The despair, even as a child, was so overwhelming that I will never forget the grief.”
But Kenney called the accident “a blessing in disguise. It gave me direction in life at a young age to pursue exactly what I wanted to do,” he said.
Kenney’s father is from Georgia, where his elderly and widowed mother resided. When Kenney was 16 his family moved from Guam back to the US to be closer to his grandmother. He earned his undergraduate degree in psychology from Emory University in Atlanta, GA, and went to graduate school at the Northwestern University Prosthetics-Orthotics Center in Chicago.
Kenney doesn’t view himself as more qualified than a prosthetist without a prosthesis; however, he recognizes he offers a different perspective.
“I’m not so foolish as to think I’m a better prosthetist than others, however, due to my past personal experience, I will always be sympathetic to an amputee’s initial start in life,” he said.
Kenney is interested in inspiring other amputees to pursue careers in the prosthetics industry. He’s currently treating an amputee who wants to become a board-certified prosthetic assistant. The patient also works part time for Kenney.
“He told me I planted the seed a few years ago and put him on a track to change his life,” he said.
Kenney also has a young patient whom he thinks would be a good candidate.
“[He] lost his leg at about the same age as I was,” he said. “This kid reminds me so much of myself it’s uncanny. I want to see if one day I can have him find interest in this field. He would be good medicine for someone one day.”
What drives Kenney is seeing an amputee walking for the first time.
“The hope that returns to an amputee’s face after that first step is always a heart tug for me,” he said. “I still enjoy going to work every day because of this.”
NICK ACKERMAN, CP
Phone call makes wrestling champ rethink career goals
Meningitis was what led to bilateral below-knee amputations for Nick Ackerman, CP, in 1981, when he was just 18 months old. Ackerman, who became a patient of American Prosthetics and Orthotics in Davenport, IA, went on to become a prosthetist for the same company.
Ackerman didn’t let his disability stop him from taking on challenges. He won the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division III wrestling championship in the 174-pound weight class in 2001 for Simpson College in Indianola, IA. He did it by beating the defending national champ and stopping his opponent’s 60-match winning streak. There was a lot of publicity surrounding Ackerman’s victory, which was lauded by the sports world.
“Shortly after a newspaper article ran that featured my story, I received a phone call,” Ackerman said. “It was a young man from Texas who had just lost his leg in a car accident. We talked for a long time that night about everything—from showering, to driving, to what girls think. I remember getting off the phone and looking at my college roommate and saying, ‘I need to make his leg.’”
While Ackerman knew he wouldn’t actually make that leg, he knew then that making prosthetic devices would become his life’s work. He also wanted to share with others, including the young man from Texas, his experience using them.
“I felt that he needed to see that it really is not a big deal,” Ackerman said.
But, as Ackerman noted, being an amputee is “not a requirement to be good at our job. What I can offer them is maybe a vision of what they can and should be able to do,” he said. “No excuses, and more showing and less telling.”
In fact, Ackerman said the best prosthetist he knows—Gary Cheney, CPO, with American Prosthetics and Orthotics in Clive, IA—has both of his legs. Cheney has been Ackerman’s prosthetist since he was 2 years old.
“Growing up, I never felt as if, ‘You don’t know what it is like,’” Ackerman said.
While Ackerman’s parents and his own prosthetist had encouraged him early on to pursue this career path, Ackerman wasn’t sold on the idea of working indoors every day. His bachelor’s degree was in environmental science, and he had planned on working for the Department of Natural Resources.
But, after receiving that phone call, he decided to make one of his own. He called American Prosthetics and Orthotics, the company that has made Ackerman’s legs for 20 years. The graduate of the prosthetics program at the Northwestern University Prosthetics-Orthotics Center in Chicago recently began his 15th year there.
“Gary is still working there,” Ackerman said. “The really cool thing is I get to work in the same office with him. He has been a great mentor my entire life, and now continues to mentor me in my professional life.”
JAIME SIEG, CPA
Clinician’s advice opened her eyes to career change
Twenty years ago, Jamie Sieg, CPA, was a 16-year-old, three-sport high school athlete. Then, while driving, she experienced a tire blowout, lost control of her car, and hit a tree.
Complications from the accident resulted in the amputation of her left toes and a portion of her left foot; part of the tibialis anterior muscle was also removed. She underwent several surgeries, including rerouting tendons to allow her some movement.
“Most of high school was just trying to get back what I could,” Sieg said. “I had bad days, but I made it through pretty well. It was hard, but I was just so happy after everything that had happened that I could walk.”
While Sieg went on to participate in intramural and recreational sports in college, she was no longer competitively active. She often experienced pain in the distal end of her foot and could only participate in physical activity for a limited time.
“I could do most things, but for only short periods of time,” she said. “I would have a lot of pain.”
Eight-plus years after the initial surgery, when Sieg was 24 years old, she started to experience less movement and more breakdowns. She had repeated infections. It was necessary to undergo an amputation below the knee.
But, despite some initial healing issues related to the original accident, Sieg was playing beach volleyball four months after her amputation.
“I was able to become a lot more active than I had been in years,” she said.
Sieg graduated from the University of Missouri in Columbia with a degree in recreational therapy in 2001. But jobs were scarce post-9/11. She settled for a position at a nursing home in Kansas City, MO, running the activities department. But that’s not what she saw herself doing long term. Eventually, she had a chat with her prosthetist, Robert Kuenzi, MS, CP, about her future. Kuenzi, who worked for Hanger at the time, suggested she return to school to become a prosthetist.
“I had worked with prosthetists since I was sixteen but never really thought about doing it,” she said. “He’s the one that really opened my eyes.”
Currently a certified prosthetic assistant, Sieg is finishing the process of becoming fully certified in both orthotics and prosthetics. The most rewarding part of Sieg’s eight-year career at Hanger’s Florissant, MO, location has been seeing her patients walk back into her office for the first time after receiving their prostheses. In fact, just recently, the staff cheered the return of a patient.
“It was the first time I had seen him standing up. It was awesome,” said Sieg, who has used a wheelchair off and on. “Being able to stand up and look into people’s eyes—it’s a great feeling to see people get back to that point.”
One of Sieg’s first patients was a man in his early 50s who had just had an amputation as a result of diabetes. Sieg recalls him being down and unsure of what his future held. He thought his career working for a major manufacturing company was over. Sieg reassured him that in time he would return to work. And, after nine months of treatment, he did.
“From start to finish, he was my patient,” she said. “It was amazing. He stands on his feet most of the day. It makes me feel so good because I know I was the one who helped him get there.”