Thousands of patients have passed through the Loren J. Mallon Centro de Rehabilitacion in Zacapa, Guatemala, but director David Krupa, CP, prosthetics ’03, recalls the first without hesitation.
In October 2005, as construction of the clinic wound down, Krupa evaluated Telma, a 12-year-old girl walking on a foot so badly deformed, she rarely attended school. He knew that had the girl been born with a similar disability in the United States, amputation would likely have occurred much earlier in life.
A 26-year-old certified prosthetist at the time, Krupa had learned as much during his training at the Northwestern University Prosthetics-Orthotics Center (NUPOC). He had also learned from experience.
Twenty-five years earlier, he suffered from the same condition.
“I quickly understood that in many cases it is the lack of a prosthesis, not the lack of a limb, that disables thousands of people around the globe,” said Krupa, who had successful amputation surgery shortly after his first birthday.
Although Telma had to wait, the amputation has been followed by seven years of prosthetics from the Range of Motion Project (ROMP), a nonprofit organization co-founded by Krupa that provides artificial limbs and orthotic braces to populations without access.
The lessons of healthcare in a developing nation are ones a group of Feinberg students, graduates, practitioners, and faculty get exposed to annually during NUPOC’s international service trip to Central America.
Some 2,000 miles from campus, the five-day visit offered Paul Leimkuehler one of the most memorable educational experiences of his life. In December, alongside eight other volunteers, he helped treat a young man who hadn’t walked since a spinal cord injury left him paralyzed from the waist down.
He fit the 17 year old with a set of bilateral knee-ankle-foot orthoses, a brace design that allows for movement by swinging one’s hips, and watched as the teenager rediscovered his mobility.
“It was like nothing I have ever seen before,” said Leimkuehler, a graduate of NUPOC’s Blended Learning Program (BLP) in orthotics, and current BLP student in prosthetics. “He had so much passion, strength, and courage and I could tell he was just ecstatic and could not believe he was up walking again. I will never forget that moment.”
Leimkuehler was a part of NUPOC’s third trip to the clinic in Guatemala, a venture that started with a conversation between NUPOC graduates and ROMP co-founders Krupa and Eric Neufeld, CPO, prosthetics in ’04, and Melinda Thorpe, CPO,orthotics ’02, prosthetics ’04, director of international education at NUPOC.
“Every year, we have more students interested in getting involved internationally,” said Thorpe, instructor in physical medicine and rehabilitation. “By giving them the opportunity to see the needs of people in developing countries, I think it directs and changes their outlook on the field of prosthetics and orthotics.”
Both Krupa and Neufeld, the coordinator of ROMP operations in the U.S., credit their time at Feinberg for instilling the confidence required to embark on such an ambitious endeavor.
“NUPOC prepared me for the clinical and technical situations I am constantly in, and also helped to forge relationships that make this choice of career so rich and rewarding,” Neufeld said. “Without the high-quality training I received at Northwestern, I would not have had the confidence I did to take on a commitment that involves making promises to amputees in need of prosthetic care.”
Since opening seven years ago, the clinic in Guatemala has provided residents of Central America with nearly 1,500 custom-made prosthetic and thousands of orthotic devices. In February of last year, the Guatemalan government agreed to treat 300 amputees referred to it by ROMP.
Because the clinic is fully staffed by local technicians and practitioners, the annual volunteer trips provide a unique learning experience.
“The volunteer practitioners are exposed to such a variety of cases that they tend to learn a lot. They learn fabrication techniques from the local staff, they learn creative solutions to complicated problems they may have never faced, and they learn to work within the context of a foreign culture,” Krupa said. “The fact that our volunteers and staff sit down and spend quality time getting to know the story and the needs of each patient is a paradigm shift within the context of treating the poor in the developing world.”
Growing up in Forest Park, Illinois, Krupa knows no life other than that of an amputee. The care and consideration he received while at Shriner’s Hospital for Children established the framework for his career. The fact that 80 percent of amputees live in parts of the world where just 2 percent have access to care, led him to volunteer with the group Healing Hands for Haiti.
“I knew that patients around the world didn’t have the luxury of access to care that I enjoyed growing up. After working in Haiti, I understood exactly what the lack of access to care meant for the patient,” Krupa said. “Shortly after my return, I was sharing my experiences with Eric and discovered that we shared a passionate belief that we could do something about this situation. From the very beginning, we decided that even if we helped only one patient, it was worth it.”
Krupa’s donation of a dozen prosthetic socks through nonprofit Hearts in Motion (HIM) resulted in a chance meeting with the health minister of Guatemala and the director of the Zacapa Regional Hospital. Five minutes into their conversation, it was suggested that an empty building in Zacapa could act as ROMP’s home, Five months later the clinic was operational.
“The doors were opened to us in Guatemala, so naturally we went there and have enjoyed a wonderful seven year relationship with our partners at HIM,” he said.
Today, ROMP is one of the largest and most consistent providers of prosthetic services in Guatemala. In a nation where healthcare can’t always be afforded, the recycled and re-modified artificial limbs serve as an innovative solution.
Beginning in July 2013, NUPOC will begin a new 20‐month Master’s in Prosthetics and Orthotics (MPO) program. Part of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, the NUPOC MPO will accept 48 highly qualified candidates a year, each with a chance to volunteer at ROMP in the future.