Monday, July 09, 2007

Healing hands

By Amy DoveNews staff
Jul 06 2007
The child’s hand cupped in Brian Mackie’s palm is both tender and disjointed.
The tiny fist, with five fingers coiled around a Winnie the Pooh soother, fits easily in his own. It’s almost life-like except for the wrist where there is nothing except a hole for an artificial arm to slip into.
Mackie made the hand for an eight-month-old baby born without an arm. The extraordinary task is all in a day’s work for the senior prosthetist and the 23 other staff at the Fisher Building. The facility is part of the Queen Alexandra Centre in Saanich and run under the Vancouver Island Health Authority. Every year, staff tailor orthotics, prosthetics and speciality wheelchairs for about 5,000 people on Vancouver Island. Roughly 1,500 of those are children.
The reasons for coming to Fisher vary from afflictions like cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, polio and defects in the feet to sports injuries. The most common reason for adults are complications from diabetes, Mackie said. The majority of amputations they see are a result of the disease.
Despite the number of people served, without a personal connection very few know what happens inside the one-storey building with an ocean front view.
“It’s VIHA’s best kept secret,” Mackie said, before starting a whirlwind tour of the facility.
Walking down the hall at a fast clip, Mackie passes assessment rooms and offices before stopping in a workshop where staff make foot, ankle and knee braces. It starts with a plaster casting of the patient. Technicians then file the pieces down to alleviate pressure in some spots and add it in others, depending on the client’s needs.
The casts destined to become ankle and knee braces move on to the next room where high-grade plastic is softened in an oven, draped over the cast and then vacuum sealed to the cast. Adult braces come in black but the options are endless for kids, Mackie said holding up a collection of animal, sport and other colourful theme braces. The remaining casts become foot orthodics designed to straighten a person’s gait or correct other problems before they escalate.
“In sheer numbers it’s a lot of feet,” he said about the younger clients.
Across the hall, staff make speciality wheelchairs. Each seat must be adjusted to provide the appropriate support for each person. They also fit tricycles and other speciality chairs to help people be more active.
Staff have used the same techniques for decades, but times are changing. The Fisher Building has used a computer and laser scanner for the last five years. The scanner replaces the need to make a cast, while the computer allows technicians to manipulate the brace design. There is another laser device which measures the amount of weight on each foot so staff can adjust a brace for pressure points.
The computer program is great for those that are comfortable with it, Mackie said, but certain types of equipment still benefit from the hands-on technique.
The facility has up to date equipment and a staff of 23, but there are still barriers to getting people the help they need. Youth under the age of 19 are covered for the braces and devices they need to be as mobile as possible either through private insurance or funding from the Queen Alexandra Foundation for Children.
The Fisher Building needs $1.8 million a year to support the children who need the facility. The Queen Alexandra Foundation helps a lot, Mackie said. The foundation raises $240,000 annually for the children’s program, which is spent on staff and equipment costs. This year they are hoping to update the scanning equipment, said foundation vice president Jennifer Jasechko. The foundation is also there to help families who are not covered by insurance.
“Kids do not go without here,” Mackie said. Clients become family as staff watch and help them grow over the years, he added.
It’s a feeling that translates to the parents too. Catherine Trembath and her daughter Charlotte Heine have visited the facility since she was a baby. Now 12, Charlotte has cerebral palsy. Fisher Building staff have fitted her for braces and wheelchairs her entire life.
“They get to know you and they treat you like family,” Trembath said. “The Fisher Building’s clients are very fragile, but emotionally they are very strong. The (staff) realize that and really rise to the occasion to support them.”
Twice, the family has felt the attentive care of staff at home. Charlotte underwent surgery on her hips and later broke her leg. Fisher staff arrived at the front door to make sure her chair was properly fitted for a more comfortable recovery, Trembath said.
As one of two public facilities in B.C., the Fisher Building has more staff onsite then private clinics. To better aid clients from up Island another facility is key, Mackie added.
But getting that space won’t happen anytime soon, said VIHA spokesperson Suzanne Germain.
“We would like to see it move up Island and as part of that program we have expressed interest in getting office space in the proposed new North Island regional hospital,” Germain said.
The hospital, which has been endorsed by VIHA, would serve the communities of Courtney and north.
It could be years before a location and funding are secured for such a site, meaning the program will remain in Saanich for some time, she said, adding there are private clinics currently serving the area.
Despite the itch to expand, staff at the Fisher Building have little to complain about, Mackie said. Frustrations crop up around funding, but the people they help are amazingly resilient. Watching someone walk out of the building when they rolled in that same morning will never lose it’s thrill – especially when that person is a child.
“The kids… they run out.”
Staff at VIHA’s Fisher Building help restore mobility to more than 5,000 people on Vancouver Island

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