Donating Ability

Local Company Answers the Call for a Critical Need in the Developing World

By Gina Galluci-White | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 02.12.14 – Diversions, Lifestyles

Jeffrey Brandt recalls the problems his grandfather Joseph Mazur faced as an amputee. The prosthetic right leg didn’t always fit right and he had to drive a vehicle with a bench front seat so he could set the prosthetic aside and touch the pedals with his left leg.

Mazur lost his leg while serving in the U.S. Army during World War II in the Philippines. When the Japanese began their occupation in 1942, he was wounded by a mortar shell explosion during the invasion. As a prisoner of war, he whittled a new leg out of a maple log but the prison camp had a bartering system and in order to keep his wooden leg, he would need to provide something in return. With limited possibilities, Mazur became a barber and cut the hair of the guards. He was freed in 1945 and later returned to the Philippines for a visit in the 1980s. The leg he made is now in a museum in Chicago.

Mazur died when Brandt was a teenager, and although he isn’t the main reason Brandt decided to pursue a career in prosthetics, his struggles were certainly an inspiration.

Brandt and Jeffrey Quelet co-founded Ability Prosthetics and Orthotics, Inc., 10 years ago. The company evaluates and fits patients with custom and produced orthotic and prosthetic devices. “We are restoring their independence, their mobility and their freedom,” Brandt says. “I think we play a crucial role in people’s independence.” Quelet is an amputee, losing his right leg below the knee to bone cancer.

So when a patient talks to him about concerns, he can offer comfort because they’re both facing similar issues.

The average life span of a prosthetic is between three to five years, due to wear and tear. In the United States, prosthetics and other medical devices cannot be reused or repurposed by another individual, but many foreign countries where the need is great have no such standards. And there is definitely a demand: More than one billion people globally experience a disability, according to the World Health Organization. Approximately 70 million people need a wheelchair, yet only 5 to 15 percent of those have access to one.

“It’s a very large need,” Quelet says, “and it’s continual. There is no end date. [Prosthetics] increase the quality of your life.”

The average life span of a prosthetic is between three to five years, due to wear and tear. In the U.S., Prosthetics and other medical devices cannot be reused or repurposed.

In an effort to help others around the globe, Ability puts together a prosthetic limb donation drive every two years at their 10 patient care facilities including Frederick and Hagerstown. Their first donation drive four years ago benefited Haiti.

Brandt says his favorite part of the drive is receiving not just donations from across the country but hearing the stories that come with the limb. “Most don’t just donate,” he says. “They want to tell the story of the person who wore it or, if they are still living, they tell their own story and why it is important to them to donate the limb. I listen to everyone I have the chance to. They are very touching and those stories are the fabric of what makes this all worthwhile. A limb takes on a whole new meaning when you hear the story behind it.”

Late last year, Ability donated around $750,000 worth of used devices to the Philippines. While the gift was planned months in advance, the timing was fortuitous. The region was devastated by Typhoon Haiyan in early November, killing more than 6,000 people and injuring countless others. Locally, patients gladly gave up their old devices to help in the relief efforts. “They are happy it is going to a good cause and it’s not collecting dust in their closet,” Quelet says.

“A limb takes on a whole new meaning when you hear the story behind it.” —Jeffrey Brandt, co-founder, Ability Prosthetics and Orthotics, Inc.

The donation was in conjunction with the Frederick-based 3Roads Communications documentary Rescue in The Philippines which tells the story of 1,300 Jews who fled Nazi Germany and found a safe harbor in the island country. Russ Hodge, 3Roads president and executive producer and Ability board member, describes the film as Argo meets Casablanca. “All had a lot to lose yet nothing to gain,” he says. “It’s a compelling story filled with great rides and compelling characters.” The limb donation and film would serve as a “thank you” to the Philippines.

The limbs were collected in mid-November by Physicians for Peace, a Virginia-based organization which provides healthcare training to medical teams in developing countries. In her nearly 10 years with Physicians for Peace, Mary Kwasniewski has seen how people deal with amputations in other countries, like making a homemade prosthetic out of PVC pipe or using homemade crutches. “It’s amazing to see what they come up with,” she says. “In the developing world, it is often out of reach to get a device.”

Kwasniewski, who serves as Physicians’ senior director for global health programs, says the average age for an amputee in developing countries is between the ages of 25 and 35. Many of these countries do not have strict work safety laws so trauma-related accidents are a high percentage of amputations. Infections lead to some amputations while others are born without limbs.

“It’s amazing to see what they come up with. In the developing world, it is often out of reach to get a device.”  —Mary Kwasniewski

She has witnessed when someone in need is given a prosthetic. “If there is such a thing as pure joy—that is what you get to witness,” she says. “It’s basically giving them their life back.” The donation can lead to a ripple effect as the person can return to work or go back to school and his or her caregiver can work with another person who needs them. “You are returning them to full function,” she says. “It really makes a big difference. You are really benefiting an entire community.”