In June of 1967, Jerry Swanson was a sixteen year old farm boy who had all his limbs and his whole life out in front of him. Then the unthinkable happened, and he lost his leg in a bush hog accident while working on his uncle’s farm. His left leg was completely mangled, and had to be amputated above the knee. That same October, by the time Jerry was seventeen, he was walking in his calling and mission: “To get amputees up and back to daily living.” Today at the age of 62, he has six clinics in two states, nearly 30 employees, and has a special desire to reach out with personalized long-term care to all amputees in the Valley, including the veterans who have recently lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His career started in Memphis at a firm named Snell’s Limbs and Braces, where he apprenticed and learned the trade, no small task while learning how to handle being an amputee himself. “This was back in the day when prostheses were still mostly made out of wood and lacquer,” he told me, although his was one of the early “legs” made out of plastic. While at Snell’s he received his certification in prosthetics, and took college courses as part of his training. He studied at Northwestern University in Chicago, as well as NYU. While in Chicago he learned how to make prostheses for upper and lower leg amputees, and while in New York he studied production for upper extremity prostheses.
He spent 10 years in Memphis, has been here for 35 years, and because what he does is his “passion and calling,” he has no plans for quitting any time soon. As is the case with any truly successful health care practice, he has surrounded himself with people who are both compassionate and competent, and everyone made me feel most welcome. I found it both interesting and comforting to know that he made sure that he has an amputee on staff in each of the clinics. “We can look at someone who has just lost a limb or limbs and say, ‘we know what you are going through,’” and it’s true. For example, at the Huntsville office one of the certified licensed prosthetists by the name of Eric Andrews is what is known as a “bi-lateral below the knee amputee.” In other words, Eric lost both of his legs, and has turned his calamity around into a successful career.
I had the chance to watch different ones in various stages of familiarity with their prostheses “take their limb out for a spin,” and all of them greeted me with a smile. “Every person, job, surgery is different,” Jerry told me, “and we do not want any amputee to get anything other than personal, individualized care.” To that end, he makes sure that each patient comes in every three months, no matter how long ago they became an amputee. “It’s very important,” he said, and told me horror stories of people whose limb loss has been complicated further by ill fitting or poorly functioning prostheses.
One woman named Lorie Clotfelter first came to Jerry when she was 18, having gotten too old for the Shriner’s Hospital program for child amputees. A mowing accident took her leg below the knee, and she has been seeing Jerry for 35 years. It is apparent that she is part of the family, and she has gotten great care for decades now.
Jerry told me further that what he does is an art. “Anyone can make a prosthetic limb, but not everyone can make it fit. By “fitting,” he means far more than getting the correct physical measurements, or making sure it’s comfortable. The entire field has gotten so sophisticated that it is almost as though The Six Million Dollar Man/Woman is no longer a sci-fi TV program. That type of what used to be considered “futuristic” prosthesis is part of a science called “symbionics,” and it uses both electronics as well as hydraulics. This is the type Jerry uses, and he programmed the microchip that sees to it that the alignment, range of motion, swing, and any other part of the artificial limb is working in harmony with the body. A symbionic solution is not for everyone, and the whole staff is involved making sure patients are fully comfortable with their product, that it fits their age and lifestyle.
I asked him, God forbid, if I should ever lose a limb, why should I come to Alabama Orthotics and Prosthetics? He answered simply, “Because we try harder,” and I believe they do.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner