Monday, July 16, 2007

Amputees make the most of life with a Manchester company's help

By SHAWNE K. WICKHAMNew Hampshire Sunday News Staff Sunday, Jul. 15, 2007
Manchester – Matt Albuquerque calls it the "wall of inspiration," these photos hanging in his company's reception area that depict people scuba diving, dancing, running, golfing, even sky-diving.
And if you didn't know to look, you probably wouldn't notice: All these folks are pursuing their dreams with the help of artificial limbs.
Albuquerque is the founder and vice president of Next Step Orthotics & Prosthetics Inc., a company headquartered in the Manchester Millyard. Here, an on-site lab combines artistry and engineering to create custom fitted devices.
But, Albuquerque explained, "It's really about providing an opportunity for people who don't think they have one."
"We say we're not giving you a leg, we're trying to give you your life back," he said. "I've seen enough miracles, I've seen enough people turn the corner, to know it can happen."
That's what the photos and the scrapbooks scattered around the waiting area are about. It's the first impression that Albuquerque and his partner, Peter Couture, Next Step's clinical director and president, are after.
So even before a client speaks with anyone, Albuquerque said, "This gets rid of a lot of the preconceived notions that people have."
Whatever you did before amputation, you can do again, he'll tell clients, knowing that the biggest hurdles often are not physical but mental.
And if they don't believe it? "That's when we bring people in to talk to them," he said.
People like Jason Lalla, who became a client of Couture after he lost a leg in a motorcycle crash in 1989, just two weeks after his high school graduation. Lalla continued to pursue his dreams and became a Paralympic gold medalist in skiing.
Now he's a certified prosthetist at Next Step -- "To be able to give back," Lalla explained.
Then there's Chris McLaughlin of Gilford, a bio-engineering student at Syracuse University who is job shadowing the folks at Next Step this summer.
He's also a client.
"When I was a kid, I came here, and they accepted me and treated me like family," McLaughlin said. "This is the best place ever."
McLaughlin's left leg was amputated when he was 9 years old, the result of a birth defect, but that didn't stop him from skateboarding and other activities. "Chris was the beta tester for a foot that was supposed to be unbreakable," recalled Albuquerque. "If he didn't break that thing a dozen times..."
The engineers, he grinned, "didn't want to take our calls after a while."
Now 20, the young man with a big smile is a natural with the children who come here for braces or prosthetic limbs. "Ten years ago, that was me," McLaughlin said.
These days, Next Step is seeing more veterans, both from past conflicts and the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And while the mission is the same for all his clients, Albuquerque said, "I have a soft spot in my heart for any veteran."
Next Step is involved with the Wounded Warrior Project's annual ski program for disabled soldiers at Waterville Valley. And Albuquerque has been a key supporter of the Veterans Count initiative at Easter Seals New Hampshire.
His company also is working with its Millyard neighbor, Dean Kamen's DEKA, on a project for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop an advanced upper-body prosthesis for amputee soldiers.
Albuquerque said his respect for the military was instilled in him by his late father, a 20-year Navy man. "Everything I have here today I attribute to him, so whatever I can do to help any vet is giving that little bit back."
'Parts is parts'
In 1974, Robert Wilson of Amherst was a flight deck officer on the USS Kitty Hawk. He was directing an aircraft that was landing on the carrier deck and "took three steps back."
"I was in front of one of the cables that catches the plane, and the plane landed," Wilson said. "One-two-three, bang -- gone."
Both legs were severed in the accident, which Wilson doesn't remember. But while it ended his military career, it didn't change his determination to recover -- or his lifelong passion for golf.
Today Wilson is the long-time executive director of the National Amputee Golf Association -- and a client of Next Step, where he serves as an inspiration for others to pursue their dreams, according to Albuquerque.
Here's how Wilson, at 66, sees his disability: "It doesn't mean that life has to stop just because you're missing a part. Parts is parts. And with technology today, the new part might be better than the old part."
One of Next Step's specialties is the custom-molded "socket" that fits over the amputee's body and onto the prosthetic limb. With the lab right here, the staff can fit a client right away, and make any adjustments needed without having to send the device out -- and a person's mobility along with it, Albuquerque noted.
"If you can give us half a day, we can go through two weeks of appointments while you wait," he said.
It's more than a time advantage. "If I'm doing it while you're here," he explained, "I've got your anatomy in my mind."
The client has plenty of choices, from a favorite fabric to cover the socket, to the kind of "cover" that fits over the prosthesis. Albuquerque showed off a remarkably lifelike, high-definition silicon cover that's made in England by fine-art students, the choice of a client who wanted to dance in high heels.
At the other extreme is the futuristic-looking "running leg" that another young woman uses for races.
It's all about the client's wishes, Albuquerque said. For a Vietnam vet, that meant covering a "beach leg" for swimming with a patriotic fabric. For a Harley rider, it was a high-tech prosthesis with no cover "" just small flames to embellish the sleek black metal that matched his bike.
What makes Next Step unique, Wilson said, is "the fact that they take a personal interest in the individual, and they try to make sure that everything is right with the prosthesis before you walk out the door with it."
Indeed, the relationships with clients are as important as the orthotics or prostheses themselves, Albuquerque said. And that's why he doesn't want to grow too large: "We never want to get beyond what our fingertips can touch."
Meanwhile, Albuquerque said he considers himself "one of the luckiest guys in the world."
"Just because of what we get to do: Surround ourselves with true heroes, and make a great impact on people's lives."
The voices of readers:
Our Daughter Madlyn visits Matt & Scott for her leg brace. what a wonderful team that works in the office. Matt does a great job with our daughter and is also our hero!! Thank you Matt for all you do. Daniel,Laurie & Madlyn Gladysz Manchester NH- Laurie Gladysz, Manchester NH
I have had the opportunity to work with Matt and Scott. What they do is wonderful and they truly are caring individuals. Keep up the good work!!! Kim- Kim Khan, Raleigh, NC
Hello, I am a client of NextStep O+P. I was in a serious motorcycle accident on July 2nd 2002, after dealing with another O+P business for just over a year, I was introduced to Matt Albuquerque. Matt actually came to my Dr.'s office to meet me! He spent a lot of time with me there, he understood, and validated my concerns. NextStep has been there for me every step of the way. I was never suppose to be able to walk again (due to severe nerve damage... I shattered a vertabrae, and injured my spinal cord). However, Matt always reinforced his belief in me, and with the exceptional care that NextStep provides us clients... I do walk today, I am still not able to run, and have other issues to contend with, but thanks to Matt, David, and the whole gang at Nextstep, I do walk!!! There is a great sense of freedom to be out of the wheelchair that was suppose to be my form of mobility for life. Thanks go to Matt and his staff for their undying compassion and care for their clients. I love these people, and I could never thank them enough!!! NextStep O+P is the ONLY place I would ever recommend to anyone needing orthotics/prosthetics. Thank You for the opportunity to live a more confident, comfortable, and satisfying life Matt, I will NEVER forget what you have done for me Matt!!! Ernie Marcoux- ernest marcoux, goffstown

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