SAINT PETER

Clin­i­cian’s ca­reer is about help­ing am­putees over­come dev­as­tat­ing loss.

RSWLiving - - Front Page - BY TERRY ALLEN WIL­LIAMS Terry Allen Wil­liams is a Fort My­ers writer, pho­tog­ra­pher and trav­eler.

Idon’t know what a saint looks like, but I think I know what they do. They ded­i­cate them­selves to help­ing oth­ers. I re­cently vis­ited the Hanger Clinic in Fort My­ers and met a lo­cal saint, or at least some­body I con­sider in that cat­e­gory. Peter DiPaolo is Hanger’s chief clin­i­cian in Fort My­ers, a pros­thetist and or­tho­tist. I didn’t know the terms, but dis­cover it means they’re board cer­ti­fied and state li­censed to fit up­per and lower limbs and man­age pa­tient care.

DiPaolo, 41, pleasant look­ing with a very bald head and a big smile, greets me and his client, Steve Oliver, 74. Oliver is fit with a pros­thetic right leg, be­neath the knee. His walk­ing mo­tion seems quite fluid.

We fol­low DiPaolo into a small white room to per­form a fol­lowup with Oliver, whose leg was am­pu­tated in 2015. “I had fu­sion surgery per­formed but then it formed a cyst,” Oliver tells me. “I was im­mo­bi­lized for two years, and the doc­tor said he didn’t see much point in do­ing an­other fu­sion. The bone had died.”

For­tu­nately, Oliver’s leg surgery was per­formed with an eye to fit­ting a pros­thetic limb―and that is where the Hanger Clinic came in, a com­pany started in 1861 by James Ed­ward Hanger, a Con­fed­er­ate sol­dier whose leg was lost to a can­non­ball. He was also the Civil War’s first am­putee. Hanger fash­ioned a wood re­place­ment leg from bar­rel staves and patented an ad­vanced de­vice in 1871. At his death in 1919, the J.E. Hanger Co. had Amer­i­can and Euro­pean of­fices. To­day there are some 750 of­fices, 53 in Florida. The com­pany right­fully gained some re­cent fame for fit­ting a Florida dol­phin with a pros­thetic tail. Oliver was fit­ted in New Hamp­shire, but con­nected with DiPaolo for the win­ter sea­son. “Of­ten­times, we work with pa­tients who have been in­volved in trau­matic ac­ci­dents, and those fit­tings can be much more com­pli­cated,” DiPaolo says as he con­ducts Oliver’s ex­am­i­na­tion.

Lee Oliver, Steve’s wife, broke into tears when her hus­band spoke of his re­la­tion­ship with Hanger. “The two clin­i­cians I have

worked with, Paul Jenk­ins up there [New Hamp­shire] and Peter down here, have both been ter­rific. I am ex­tremely happy with the re­sult,” she says.

Her hus­band, she says, even brags about pass­ing a driv­ing test a month af­ter be­ing fit­ted. “He was in con­stant pain,” Lee says, wip­ing tears, “and now he is func­tion­ing like a nor­mal hu­man be­ing!”

DiPaolo cred­its his fam­ily for steer­ing him into the field. “I al­ways knew I wanted to help peo­ple,” he says. “My mother taught me that. But I wasn’t ex­actly sure how. I went to UConn [Univer­sity of Con­necti­cut], and while I was study­ing there to get into phys­i­cal ther­apy, I hap­pened to do re­search on per­for­mance and cus­tom sports braces. While I was do­ing this re­search, some­one suggested I look into this field and, well, that is how it hap­pened.

“I love what I do, and we have a say­ing around here, ‘Your suc­cess is my suc­cess,’ and that is how it works with our clients. On a tech­ni­cal level,” he says, “there are three as­pects: the in­ter­face, which is what touches the skin, the socket it­self, and the ex­ter­nal com­po­nent [in this case the foot]. But that is just the phys­i­cal side of the fit­ting. A lot of what we do depends on at­ti­tude, and this is re­ally where feel­ing the needs of our clients and do­ing our best to make their new limb as life­like an ex­pe­ri­ence as pos­si­ble be­comes our ul­ti­mate goal.”

I had come into this story naively, thinking that get­ting an ar­ti­fi­cial limb was kind of like buy­ing a new TV at Wal­mart. You bought the de­vice, put it on and that was it. But there is a lot more in­volved than sim­ply pur­chas­ing a phys­i­cal body part. The fit­ting is ac­tu­ally a process, and can take months or years, and some­times it doesn’t work out.

DiPaolo may not be a sanc­tioned saint in the tech­ni­cal sense, but those like him, striv­ing ev­ery day in the health ser­vice field to give dam­aged peo­ple a bet­ter life, are pretty darn close.

DiPaolo may not be a sanc­tioned saint in the tech­ni­cal sense, but those like him, striv­ing ev­ery day in the health ser­vice field to give dam­aged peo­ple a bet­ter life, are pretty darn close.

Hanger clin­i­cian Peter DiPaolo (fore­ground) tests a pros­thetic leg for Steve Oliver be­fore fit­ting it at the Fort My­ers of­fice.

Steve Oliver (below left and right) passed a driv­ing test shortly af­ter be­ing fit­ted for a new limb. Hanger Clinic was started by a Civil War sol­dier.

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