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People First

It never ceases to amaze me the wonderful people I meet in this career of mine. Every type of person, business, charity, everything needs images of something and I am the lucky person that gets to meet the people seeking those images. Another example of great people doing great things is Anatomical Designs (AD) in Uniontown PA just southeast of Pittsburgh. I went there to create images for their brochures and marketing pieces but what I found was a fantastic group of people that really care about their patients and their families.

I arrived in Uniontown late Sunday and checked into a hotel that was pre-booked for my assistant and me, a room for each. The town itself is much like most small towns throughout Pennsylvania but this one is special. Not far from where we were staying was the AD offices, a subdued little house like office but within is a place where wonderful work is happening.

We met the office manager and the owner then received the nickel tour to give us an idea of what and where we would be shooting. We saw the kitchen area, waiting area, the medical offices and therapy rooms; as we moved downstairs we came upon the workshop where the real magic happens. This is where they make the prosthetics join to the person in need of them. In this small lab skilled craftsmen labor over hot plastics and plaster molds to form a union between the person and the man-made. The work they do is not at all production line; everything is custom made and built to meet the needs of the individual. The work they do has to be seen to be appreciated.

Setting up lights and talking to the staff I learned about the advances in the technology and how each person can have completely separate needs even with the same type of amputation. I took great interest in what they told me because this was personal in a way. I still have all my limbs, at least for now, I don’t need a prosthetic. However my grandfather lost his leg in the early part of the 1900’s due to infection after a train accident. I never saw my grandfather use his prosthetic leg because he said it was heavy and uncomfortable. In fact I never saw the actual leg until years after he passed away and we were cleaning out his house after my grandmother had also passed.

I remember going up into the room on the top floor for the first time (I wasn’t allowed up there as a child) and in the corner was the wooden leg just standing there. I went over and picked it up and it was very heavy, probably 30 pounds or more. It was bent slightly at the knee but had no hinge or anything; it was one solid piece of wood carved to the height my grandfather needed. No wonder he never wore it. That thing had to exhaust him and I it had to be uncomfortable.

At Anatomical Designs the prosthetics were completely different. Some looked like a piece left behind by the robot in the movie Terminator, thin, and the skeletal structure exposed, but depending on the need of the patient they can be modified to do so many things. Each person is different and so is each prosthetic.

Of course photographing the lab would tell an incomplete story so the people at AD had arranged for a few patients to come in and act as models. Finding one legged models that also happened to be local to Uniontown would be darn near impossible. These were everyday people who for some reason had lost a limb at some point. One of them had a special electronic sensor in his leg to assist him with walking and another had a complicated spring and pressure design type of limb and the third, well the third was a young woman who at first I didn’t even notice that she had a false limb!

As Jessica and her mother walked into the office I looked down to see which person was the patient and the first thing I saw was 4 feet in sandals, all with perfectly painted matching toenails. Jessica also had some type of material over her thigh so it looked like, well, it looked like her. After a moment of thinking they were there for some other reason I notice the leg. There was no hint of it in her walk or her pace, in fact if she had jeans or a long skirt on I never would have been able to tell.

The youngest of the three patients, her accident (I believe) was the most recent; but there was no way to tell that though. The staff at AD had taken her into their care and they taught her how to not only walk in the new leg but she told me later she can dance in it too!

The work these people do is nothing short of amazing. As I needed to photograph all aspects of a patients care in only one day, I got to see the many stages of learning and more importantly, coaching that is needed.  From the fitting of the device, to the training, to the emotional and physical support, what these people offer is truly special. They aren’t there to just push patients through some system; these are craftsmen and healthcare workers that truly care about the wellbeing of the individual. They went so far as to help a young woman have a foot where she could paint her toenails!

Later in the day when I was packing up after the shoot one of the patients was still there and I mentioned to him how far the technology has come since my grandfather lost his leg. I also mentioned to him that if I ever lost a limb that I would make the 5 and a half hour drive to Uniontown just to have the people at Anatomical Designs take care of me. His comment was, “Do it! Having all your limbs isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.”

My hats off to all the folks at Anatomical Designs; bravo for putting the people first and delivering so much wonderful care.