This story could serve as a plot for an episode of the 1970's TV hit, "The Six-Million-Dollar man" -- minus the millions.
Meet Tom Valenti. He's giving hope to people who -- for whatever reason -- have lost a limb or limbs to war, disease, an accident or an accident of birth.
Tom is the owner of Ortho Remedy in Cliffside, N.J, dubbing himself as an "American Limb Builder." But, he didn't start out making prosthetics and orthotics. He came to the profession by working all through high school and college in the auto body business. Think of it as switching from car parts to human parts.
"I'm a mechanic by trade," he explains. My uncle was studying Rehab Medicine at the time, and told me about this field...the technology is just mind boggling."
Case in point: Tom met little Ruth Foster and her adoptive parents shortly after they made the 7,000-mile trek with her from China to the United States, two years ago. They turned to Tom after another company told them it would take months to fit their little girl with an artificial leg. She was running around on her knees. Tom said he could fit her in a week, and fit her he did.
"They basically dedicated a whole week, just to her....by Wednesday or Thursday of the next week, she was walking," according to Ruth's father, Brian Foster.
Now, 4-year-old Ruth practices ballet moves with her older sister, Kirsten, and the family has the home videos to prove it.
Tom's 12,000 square-foot lab features artificial limbs from what he describes as "generations past." He takes enormous pride in the flexibility of his modern creations, made from materials like plastics and titanium.
John Foley had his right leg blown off nearly 44 years ago as a teenager in Vietnam. John says the original prosthesis felt like "a cement cast, with a strap. The new technology today is a 'lock' mechanism...when you actually put your stump in it, it locks in," he explains.
Tom says in the past 35 years, he's witnessed surgical advances that do "amazing" things with the body.
Jessica Martinez had cancer in the left femur, just above the knee. Other than that, her foot was in good condition. So, doctors did what's called a "rotation plasty," attaching her lower leg to her thigh. "You have a foot that's upside down. That's her new knee," Tom points out.
Jessica was a teenager at the time, and her physical appearance was uppermost in her mind. "I was 17 years-old, and I was worried about my looks. I was like there's no way I can do it." Now, a nursing student, Jessica did get a prosthetic, and she credits Tom with making a device that helps improve her gait. "He gave me a totally different one than I had before... the one before, I was limping a lot...," Jessica says.
We ran into her as she was getting a "foam cover" from Tom, who points out that not everyone wants to conceal their prosthesis, cosmetically.
Bob Brooks, 43, now has a prosthetic, 30 years after cancer ate away at his right leg. He wears his $50,000 bionic limb, like a badge of honor. Move over Steve Austin. "That's the 'in' fashion right now," a proud Bob says enthusiastically.
Tom adds, "I would say only 40 percent of the patients prefer a cosmetic cover...60 percent of them would rather show off the technology!" Tom also used his expertise to help amputees hurt in the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake that devastated Haiti. He helped amputee Jean Louis, 24, a medical student who lost his right arm, trying to free his professor from their collapsing classroom.
Back home, the American Limb Builder dedicates his time and talents to making life just a tad less taxing for his clients. He treats roughly 500 amputees a year. His longtime client, Susan Lehner, lost her foot in a car crash at age 19. When we met her, she had an appointment to have Tom cut her prosthesis, so it doesn't peek through her boots.
Susan says jokingly, that she'll need a "new foot" soon. "I am so bad! I've worn it all out," she laughs pointing to the crack in her
Reported By Mary Murphy