New Limbs Help Lives to Grow : Prosthesis Maker Travels Globe in Efforts on Behalf of the Maimed
Tim Staats’ passport is a commentary on man’s capacity for brutality.
He has dodged bullets in Beirut, toured ravaged Palestinian hospital wards and taught Soviet doctors how to make lifelike limbs for soldiers returning from Afghanistan.
As one of the nation’s foremost experts in the art and craft of fashioning artificial limbs, the director of UCLA’s school of prosthetics has taken American techniques abroad to help the maimed victims of war back on their feet, even if some of those feet are synthetic.
“He is regarded by his peers as a man who can do a prosthetic as well as any we’ve got in this country,” said Peter Edmunds, a senior consultant to the World Rehabilitation Fund in New York.
An amateur sculptor whose figures adorn his hillside home in Northridge, Staats, who is married and has one child, has a reputation for making limbs with an artist’s eye.
So respected is his talent that the fund and the United Nations have dispatched him to international trouble spots to assess the ability of war-ravaged nations to care for their crippled. It can be a humbling tour.
“In a lot of countries, there is just nothing there,” he said.
He recalled a “very disturbing week” on the Israeli West Bank, where hospitals were filling up with Palestinian children wounded in the Intifada. ‘
‘It was like being thrown back 50 years. Prosthetics are at a very sad state. The patients were uncomfortable and complaining,” he said.
In Beirut he found the remnants--twisted equipment and a shattered lathe--of a shop that made artificial limbs.
It was a depressing sight, yet the effervescent, 41-year-old was not depressed. Unlike someone who lives by the industry aphorism that holds “life is like a prosthesis, it’s always chafing somewhere,” he appears perpetually smiling.
Born and raised in a suburb of Chicago, he attended the University of Montana. To push each other to do better in their physical therapy studies, Staats and some friends began a competition that allowed the person who received the best grade on a test to require his mates to perform sit-ups and pullups as a penalty for mediocrity.
It was an effective tool. Staats’ six-foot frame was whipped into shape and he graduated in three years.
But his life was changed in Montana by a bicycling accident that broke his back. Staats could no longer do the lifting required of a physical therapist. With his career dream shattered, he turned to the relatively obscure field of prosthetics, which deals with the replacement of missing body parts, and orthotics, the science of making braces.
He applied to UCLA, which had set up the nation’s first school of prosthetics in 1953 to help Korean and World War II veterans who said they were receiving inadequate care. Because of the need for prosthetics caused by the Vietnam War, he was accepted in 1968. “They were all over me like a hobo on a ham sandwich,” he said.
Even today, there are only 1,500 prosthetists in the United States--one-fifth of those are in California--to serve a population of amputees estimated at 500,000. Staats said there are 50,000 new amputees each year, many of them victims of highway accidents.
At the Prosthetics, Orthotics Education Program at UCLA, Staats learned to make artificial limbs, a delicate, sometimes frustrating process that can take a few hasty hours or as long as a year. Measurements of the residual limb are taken. A model of the limb is made, and heated plastic is pulled over the model and allowed to cool. That becomes the socket that goes over the residual limb and holds the prosthesis. Once the prosthesis is attached, adjustments make it conform to the way the patient moves.
After college, Staats taught and then went to work for United States Manufacturing in Pasadena, which makes artificial limb components. He returned to UCLA when the retirement of the prosthetic school’s director, John Bray, put the institution in jeopardy. Because the school was not funded--and still is not--by the University of California, it survives on federal grants.
With the director gone, no one was writing grant proposals. “They thought they might close the program,” Staats said.
In what he describes as a crazy decision, Staats resigned his job and returned to UCLA in 1982 to try to resurrect the program. He wrote a grant proposal to the U. S. Department of Education and heard nothing for months.
“Things were getting a bit threadbare at home” when word finally came that the grant had been approved for three more years, he said.
UCLA is a recognized leader in work on artificial legs, especially in creating new techniques in limb-making that can be easily taught to prosthetists in a classroom or a war zone.
Staats has tutored doctors in Mexico and Spain, and visited Moscow to show how leg amputees from the war in Afghanistan can be made to walk without a limp and without pain.
“We can make people get up and walk,” he said.
“If you lost a limb and had it cut off above the knee, Tim is the guy you want to work on you,” said Edmunds, of the World Rehabilitation Fund. “He has an incredible kind of a nuts-and-bolts sense. If I’ve got a tough problem, I’ll go to Tim. If I want somebody to look at a specific problem in an area, Tim Staats is the guy we go to every time.”
In 1983, Staats was dispatched to Beirut by the World Rehabilitation Fund. Normally exceedingly dangerous for an American, the city was in the control of the Israeli army. Nonetheless, tanks rolled in the streets at night, and Staats dodged gunfire.
He fled the city on the last flight before the airport was closed, but not before completing his tour. It showed that half the prosthetics facilities had been destroyed in a city locked in a civil war that daily produced new amputees.
In addition to assisting war-torn countries, Staats also aids areas that have been struck by natural disaster. He has fabricated limbs for victims of the devastating earthquakes that struck Soviet Armenia.
A Hollywood celebrity who requested anonymity recently paid him to make a new leg for a visiting Vietnamese film director who was injured while fighting for the Viet Cong in the Vietnam War. It took all night and the plastic was still cooling when the director arrived for the final fitting. He asked Staats how he felt about helping a former enemy.
“This is my contribution toward peace,” he replied.
Not all his work is with people in crisis. Staats said he told the producers of “Battlestar Galactica,” a science-fiction television series, that he was the only person in town who could make their four-limbed creatures, named Ovions, move realistically.
“You can pay me now or pay me later,” Staats said he told them.
Call for Help
They went somewhere else, but two weeks before shooting started, he received a call for help. After working long hours to get them ready, the creatures were destroyed in the first scene.
The business of artificial limbs is a flourishing one. Manufacturers sell 10,000 feet each month at prices that range up to several thousand dollars for a luxuriously crafted foot made of a space shuttle-type composite of woven glass and graphite.
Now in favor among female amputees are limbs coated with a new material that has the soft, yielding quality of flesh. Freckles can be added to make the limb look more lifelike.
Styles in prosthetics “go in and out of fashion every month, it seems,” Staats said.
Not everyone wants their limbs to mimic life. Some look upon their artificial limbs as a way to make personal statements. In Staats’ lab on a low hill overlooking Westwood is a plastic leg covered with pictures of a woman in a bathing suit, resembling a World War II-era Betty Grable.
Another limb is adorned with the California Raisins.