While Russell Stanley’s prosthetic leg represents freedom and mobility for the 74-year-old Korean War veteran, it’s also a handy spot to tape extra keys to his house and car. That way, “They’re always with me,” said Stanley with a laugh.
Stanley lost his lower right leg in Korea in 1952 while serving in the Marine infantry. Wounded by mortar shrapnel, there was no choice but to amputate his limb, he said.
Losing a leg hasn’t held Stanley back in life. “I manufactured steel for 36 years, bowled three nights a week, managed a Babe Ruth baseball team and played tennis for 25 years,” he said.
But after a recent hip replacement, Stanley’s leg no longer fits correctly into the socket of his prosthetic. He’s without his limb, temporarily, while Kyle Eckhart of Napa Valley Prosthetics and Orthotics create a newer, lighter version of the artificial limb.
Eckhart, along with business partner Michael Bright, both certified prosthetist orthotists, recently opened their business on Beard Road and another office in Fairfield.
The company provides both prosthetics to replace a missing body part, like a leg or arm, and orthotics, or braces to support or correct a body part.
Anyone suffering from diabetes, a stroke or other injury may need an orthotic, Eckhart said. People with multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy may require braces to help them move, decrease pain or improve stability.
A diabetic often looses sensation in their feet, needing specially fit shoes, or sometimes amputation, which would require a prosthetic. Seventy percent of all amputations are diabetes or vascular related, said Eckhart. Car accidents and war victims make up only 30 percent of prosthetic users.
While most newer veterans needing prosthetics or orthotics are treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C., the business does work with some older veterans from World War II, Vietnam and Korea, like Stanley.
On a recent morning, Stanley’s prosthetic limb wearing a gray sock and size 13 black shoe stood on a workbench in the Beard Road office lab. Scuffed and worn, the leg also displayed a Marine Corps sticker on the faux calf.
Prosthetic technology has come a long way since Stanley got his first artificial limb, one of eight he’s had during his 55 years as an amputee. The vet’s first limb “was horrible,” he said.
“It was crude compared to now. I could hardly walk in it. They’ve come a long way.” Even though he’s getting a replacement, Stanley’s not asking for anything too fancy. “I don’t want to get one of those with springs. I just want to walk.”
Using plaster of paris, Eckhart and Bright first make a mold of Stanley’s existing limb. Then, using an industrial oven to heat a sheet of plastic, a test socket of the prosthesis will be formed using a vacuum. After a check for pressure points and fit, Eckhart will then make the finished leg with carbon fiber woven fabric coated with epoxy resin resulting in a strong and lightweight prosthesis.
Not only will his new leg will fit Stanley better, it should also weigh about half a much as the current leg, which Stanley estimated at 25 lbs.
Old-fashioned peg legs are definitely a thing of the past when it comes to making prosthetics. Today, even the heavier plastics of five and 10 years ago are being replaced with carbon fibers and acrylic resins, titanium and aluminum, along with built-in microprocessors that tell a joint when to flex, lock in place and how quickly to move.
Getting a prosthetic to fit correctly is a challenge, said Eckhart.
“It’s almost like getting the front end alignment of a car correct, you have to get the alignment (of a prosthesis) right.”
Napa Valley Prosthetics and Orthotics also sells orthopedic supplies for ankles, neck, knees, hips, feet and shoes for diabetics besides pregnancy support bands. An industrial sewing machine allows the two to customize any orthotic for the right fit.
This is the first small business enterprise for both Eckhart and Bright. The two met while working for another prosthetic and orthotic company in Napa County. Opening an office in Napa was important to them. “We want to be part of the local community,” said Eckhart.
Eckhart, 39, who previously managed a retirement home, said he made his career change because he wanted, “to work with people and my hands again. Everything we do in this business is custom made. We are always working with new people. They become friends. Especially the amputees. You work with them for a long time — it’s like going to the same hairdresser — except we’re the leg guys.”
Stanley, who lives in Benicia, said he chose Napa Valley Prosthetics and Orthotics to make his new limb because, “I liked the way Kyle conducted himself,” said Stanley. “I liked his education and things he presented — new legs, new ideas, new methods. He’s been great in answering a lot of questions.”
He’s ready to get his leg back. “It’s always a good conversation piece,” Stanley said. And besides, “I’m anxious to get walking again.”
Will Stanley put the Marine Corps sticker back on his new leg?
“If there’s a spot I’ll put it on.”