Saturday, March 12, 2005

Clark & Associates helps soldiers walk again

Clark & Associates helps soldiers walk again
By EMILY CHRISTENSEN, Courier Staff Writer

WATERLOO --- After 72 hours of work the fit is nearly perfect.

Lonnie Moore has been through a dozen fittings since flying into Waterloo three days earlier. But, if he can go home happy, the rigorous hours twisting, pushing and pulling won't matter.

"It feels a lot better already," he says.

A small smile of satisfaction uncurls on the face of Matt Hutchings, one of the many men responsible for the new prosthetic leg.

Moore, 29, is one of hundreds of soldiers Hutchings, Dennis Clark and their partners at Clark & Associates have helped. Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., contacted the company in October 2003.

After 18 months of fitting soldiers with new limbs at the D.C. hospital, Moore is the first to be invited to the Waterloo office.

"I joke around with them all the time that I am probably their worst customer," Moore says. "I am very picky, but they are very accommodating."

Clark disagrees --- but says Moore just knows what he needs to be comfortable.

"We haven't been able to get this 100 percent," Clark says. "I don't want him to go home without something that really fits."

That dedication allowed the partners --- Clark, Hutchings, Andrew Steele, John Costello and Dean Sturch --- to work and live at a breakneck pace for more than a year.

Willing to serve

When the war in Iraq started, no one at Walter Reed thought the conflict would last long enough to create a large influx of patients. The United States was supposed to hit fast and hard, take out important targets and leave little room for retaliation. What the military didn't count on was a prolonged rebuilding effort more dangerous for combatants than the war itself.

When the number of patients with lower limb amputations began to increase, the staff at Walter Reed knew they couldn't keep up. The military wants to give wounded soldiers the opportunity to serve again.

"We have an amputee return-to-duty standard, which is different than in the civilian sector," says Ralph Urgolites, director of prosthetics and orthotics at Walter Reed.

Industrial accidents usually require three socket changes; soldiers are more likely to have eight.

Clark and his partners are known worldwide. The combination of care and prosthetic manufacturing in the same building was a draw for Walter Reed administrators, who were keen on getting injured soldiers up and moving --- fast.

The job was supposed to last about three months. That was 18 months ago.

"We told them we would be there as long as they needed us. It wasn't a problem," Clark says.

Since then the partners have rotated weekly shifts between Walter Reed and the Waterloo office, balancing a patient load unlike any they have experienced. Every Monday Clark and at least one partner fly on their own dime on a commercial flight out of Waterloo. They arrive in the afternoon, see a couple of patients, then settle in at a hotel, which they also pay for. Tuesday at the hospital is spent measuring patients for sockets. The information is sent to Waterloo that evening.

Technicians at Orthotics and Prosthetics1, the manufacturing arm of Clark & Associates, have about 24 hours to craft a socket, which is sent in the first FedEx shipment Wednesday. Shipping costs the company thousands each month.

By Thursday morning the soldiers are testing their prosthetics. In the civilian world, the process takes up to two weeks.

When he said yes, Clark knew the process would strain the companies' resources.

"This is a commitment for both of our businesses," Clarks says. "They are always working overtime and staying late to make that 7 a.m. rush."

At the end of the week there is no big payday, no government contract. Walter Reed pays the Waterloo companies based on Medicaid reimbursement rates in Washington, D.C. --- a far cry from the compensation Clark would receive locally.

"We didn't do this for the money," he says. "It's the experience and the chance to work with cutting edge technology."

Cutting edge

Andrew Steele, one of the partners, usually crafts prosthetics for the elderly. But they don't challenge{M3 prosthetics like younger, more athletic{M3 patients.

Soldiers facing life without limb still want to run, ski, snowboard, jump out of airplanes --- or go into battle again.

Each day soldiers push the prosthetics' limits, doing things veterans before them never dreamed possible. Their drive has manufacturers chomping at the bit to try new concepts. Clark says it isn't unusual for prosthetics development to make great strides during war, but not every new idea makes the cut. Those that do are given a full trial in the office and in the field.

"We can all read the brochures, but these guys are out in the real world," Clark says. "They need a different kind of socket for each of the activities they are doing."

Leading the team at Walter Reed allows Clark & Associate partners to work with the new prosthetics.

"These men have had direct access to the newest technology and we hope to offer the same to our patients here," Clark says. "We have had multiple generations, a career's worth of work in just a year."

Building relationships

Christmas was special for Clark. He was finally spending a few days with his family. His extended family remembered him, too. Clark got three telephone calls that morning.

"One had just gotten a new double-walled socket and wanted to thank me for the best Christmas present."

Phone calls like that kept Clark and his partners motivated during past months. Friendships developed during that time extend beyond the walls of Walter Reed.

"Just hearing their stories, learning from the guys like Lonnie about what is going on over there, I have such a great appreciation for what they do. They are such special people," Steele says.

Moore and his friends, who liken the camaraderie on their hospital floor to that of a fraternity, can't say enough about the men who helped them regain mobility.

"They are all such amazing guys. Their commitment has been incredible. Dennis is such a hard worker. He cares so much about what he is doing," Moore says.

Clark's partners admit he often goes above and beyond to give the best to the servicemen and women.

New patients receive a plain, beige business card with Clark's home, office, cell and D.C. telephone numbers. They can reach him, anytime, anyplace.

Hutchings says as much as he enjoys the soldiers, sometimes he needs to step away. Clark, though, apparently doesn't.

"He really thrives in that sort of environment," Hutchings says.

Clark, his partners and the Walter Reed staff agree it will be hard to part ways when the time comes.

Urgolites, director of prosthetics and orthotics at Walter Reed, admires the Waterloo men's commitment.

"They have performed way past my expectations. There were so many times they could have said, 'We quit.' But they were there when we needed them, even on the most difficult patients," Urgolites says.

But it isn't just the staff and soldiers the Waterloo group will miss:

It's the guards stationed at the medical center gate.

It's the receptionists at the hotel, airport ticket counter and car rental desk.

It's the waiters in the hotel restaurant.

"You get to know so many people, it's like you are part of a huge family," Clark says "Then to walk away from it, that is difficult."

Coming to an end

Clark doesn't like to think about it much, but there will soon come a time when he no longer heads to the airport early Monday morning. Instead, it will be back to the office.

That time is fast approaching. May 20 will be the final day.

"We have made so many good friends out there," Hutchings says. "It will be hard to walk away."

During the 18 months traveling between Waterloo and Washington, D.C., though, much has happened on the home front

Clark's daughter graduated from high school.

Steele's two young daughters had a lot of firsts.

Costello's wife had the couple's first child.

The men aren't quite sure what they will do with all the "extra" time when they return to full-time business in Waterloo. But they know it will be a welcome break after so many long weeks and tired weekends.

"We have a responsibility here to grow our business. We have been doing this long enough," Clarks says. "But I also feel like I am handing my kid off to someone else to manage."

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