Moving Forward: Hanger Clinic of Edison
by Lindy Regan
When Bob Austin decided to change careers almost twenty seven years ago he found one that changes lives every single day. It also turned out to be every bit as creative and innovative as his previous work in advertising and graphic design had been, and much more fulfilling. “I didn’t even know this existed,” he says. “Then I had a friend who lost a leg in a boating accident. I found out about the technology, and that you can be the link between the technology and the person. So I went back to school.” That link is the profession of designing, fabricating, and fitting orthotic devices and artificial limbs for patients referred by doctors and physical therapists to Bob and his colleagues at Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics of Edison. “We work as a team to help people get back into their daily routines and often back to work.”
Orthotics refers to the bracing of the spine or any anatomical joint with devices and technologies that add support, or aid and enhance movement for people with specific musculoskeletal conditions caused by disease, injury, or congenital anomalies. (And you thought it was all about those shoe inserts.) A knee brace is an orthosis, as is a post-operative body jacket for someone recovering from a spinal fracture, or a cranial remolding helmet made for a premature infant. Prosthetics is the application or replacement of a missing body part. Both fields are burgeoning with technological advancements and innovations that would have been unimaginable to James Edward Hanger, the first Civil War amputee, who founded the parent company in Virginia in 1861 after creating and patenting a better prosthetic leg for himself than those available at the time.
“All the concepts from The $6 Million Man is coming to fruition now,” says Bob. For many conditions, orthotics is moving away from bracing the joints in favor of a new technology that employs a small nerve stimulation device to fire energy into muscles that are not working, contracting the muscles, and lifting the leg. “In prosthetics we’re moving into that bionic age where you have motorized joints that will help propel a patient up stairs or help them descend stairs without holding on to a railing. Knee joints and ankle joints are computerized, taking the place of missing muscles that create the motion of the ankle or the foot.” The Hanger office in Raritan Center is among the few clinical sites that specialize in highly advanced prostheses for upper extremities. “Now you have hands with individually moving fingers that use sensors to pick up electronic signals from the muscles to operate the hand. We do that here.”
This amazing technology is the means to the Hanger team’s primary end of helping people live their lives as fully as possible. As Bob says, “This is a relationship business, above all.” They work in collaboration with patients and their physicians to create comfortable, adaptable prostheses that will meet specific needs, goals, and recreational interests of their clients. An upper extremity amputee might have a prosthetic arm with several lock-and-load task-specific components, such as one for business and everyday activities, one for weight lifting, and another for fishing. One of their patients is a runner who is the fastest amputee woman in the world right now. Another is a boy who plays sled hockey. “We made a sled for him and he went to the Paralympics in Beijing, got to travel the world, get out of his wheelchair and into something that builds his confidence.” This patient has continued into coaching and led the U.S sled hockey team to gold at the 2018 South Korea games. “Recently a young boy from the Philippines hiked in the Himalayas with a specialty prosthesis we made. We are so proud of the work we do ! “
For those of us fortunate enough to walk into the Hanger office unaided it is a revelation to experience the positive energy and unforced optimism that pervade the place. It is sobering, too, to find out that fully 80 percent of Hanger’s artificial limb cases are the result of circulatory problems caused by uncontrolled diabetes. “The thing about diabetes is that it can be treated without medication,” muses Bob. “You can help cure and sometimes reverse it through diet and mild exercise. It’s a lifestyle change.”
And what about Bob’s friend, the one whose boating accident inspired Bob to discover his life’s work? “He’s really doing great.” He’s my patient now. He teaches industrial and graphic art. He’s doing things like skiing, cycling, traveling abroad; things he didn’t do before.” This new and innovative technology makes all this possible. Please visit Hanger’s website www.hanger.com for more information on orthotics and prosthetics.