Danny Huestis, Certified Prosthetist with Pacific Orthotics and Prosthetics, knows a thing or two when it comes to prosthetics that comes from more than just training — he’s been wearing a prosthetic since he became an amputee at five years old.
Huestis, 64, was born with a birth defect where he was born missing the fibula of his right leg. The decision to amputate the affected limb was made when he was five.
With the help of Shriner’s Hospital in San Francisco, Huestis was fitted with a prosthetic leg and his life changed from being a boy with a deformity, to a boy with a fake leg.
It wasn’t easy but Huestis was determined not to let it prevent him from doing what he wanted in life. It’s that dogged spirit that has helped him to be able to show his patients that life as an amputee isn’t the end of the world; it’s simply an adjustment.
“Growing up as an amputee, kids know that you’re different. A lot of kids like to bully you until they get to know you,” Huestis said. “But once I showed them that I could do a lot of the same things that they could, they realized, I was all right.”
Huestis was an active kid and participated in sports such as running track, shotput, wrestling — whatever interested him. He didn’t let his disability slow him down.
“It would infuriate me when people would say to me ‘You can’t do that.’ It only made me try harder,” he said. “I used to pride myself on running the track. I’d run even if my leg was hurting me.”
And 60 years ago, the technology wasn’t the same when it came to the prosthetics available.
“Back then they used a block of wood carved out with tools with rawhide covering. Nowadays, they use a plaster fit with energy storing feet and moveable ankles,” he said. “And I had to have a new one every year because I was a growing kid.”
And because he was an amputee at such a young age, he loves working with children when he can, though most of his patients today are the elderly who’ve lost their limbs due to vascular disease or stroke.
“Being an amputee helps put them at ease because they know they’re talking to someone who knows what’s going on,” he said. “But not everyone is ready to talk about it, either. It’s a sensitive subject for some. Everyone goes through a depression but as time goes on, they’ll be able to look back and say it’s not as bad as they thought it was going to be.”
Huestis enjoys sharing a story of when he was in the eighth grade and playing a game of hardball.
“I was up at bat. Everyone on the team knew I had a fake leg but the other team didn’t. I hit the ball to the fence and it looked like it was going to be a home run but then I realized it wasn’t going to go over and I knew I needed to get to first base at least. As I was running my foot snapped off. The bolt that had held it together came off. So I hopped all the way to first base! My teammates picked up my foot and put it next to me on the bench. It was a laughable moment,” Huestis said, smiling. “I’ve got plenty of those kinds of moments from my life.”
Today, Huestis works with patients who are going through the process of being an amputee. He helps fit them for their prosthesis and puts their mind at ease in the best way he knows how — by sharing his own experiences.
“It’s an adjustment,” he said. “Learn your limitations but don’t let it discourage you. There are things you won’t be able to do but give it a try first. There are things people with two good legs or arms can’t do either.”
Currently, Huestis has had the opportunity to work with Steve Vitale at Pacific Orthotics and Prosthetics and an innovative new piece of state-of-the-art prosthetic technology that uses electro-muscular electrodes to manipulate the prosthetic arm.
“It’s the Utah Arm 3 and it uses motion control,” he said. “It’s fascinating stuff. The VA (United States Veteran’s Affairs) is responsible for a lot of the innovation out there. It’s fantastic. I like using the technology whenever it’s applicable and I still like learning new stuff.”
And education — whether his own, or the process of educating someone else — is near and dear to Huestis’ heart.
“The more that you can educate the kids and adults — answer questions and show people that amputees are just like anyone else — the better.”
Education for the next generation is crucial and because of that, he always made time to talk to the kids, even when his own children would bring friends over to prove that their dad, indeed, had a fake leg.
“Once you show kids and answer their questions, they have better understanding and they don’t grow up with that prejudice,” he said.
If working with patients, young and old, is the bright spot of his career, dealing with the paperwork of insurance is the dark side.
“The bureaucracy of insurance paperwork isn’t fun,” he admitted. “Not everyone gets the top-of-the-line technology out there. And fighting for your patients is the hard part. But putting that smile on someone’s face that’s a new amputee makes it worth it.
“It’s about instilling hope for someone.”