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Dorchester Family Helps Victims Get Back On Their Feet12:41
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A work bench at United Prosthetics in Dorchester. (Kathleen McNerney/WBUR)
A work bench at United Prosthetics in Dorchester. (Kathleen McNerney/WBUR)
This article is more than 5 years old.

Of the 264 people injured by the bombs at the Boston Marathon last year, 16 of them lost limbs. Many of them are still learning to walk. Some are already running. One, Adrianne Haslet-Davis, is already dancing.

Family, friends and the community are helping these people reclaim their lives. So is a Dorchester-based company called United Prosthetics. For the past century, four generations of the Martino family have run the company, fitting people with prosthetic limbs.

United Prosthetics has treated half of those who suffered amputations because of the Boston Marathon bombing — including Jeff Bauman, who lost both his legs and 8-year-old Jane Richard, who lost one leg. The company treats many other people who've lost limbs for a variety of reasons — from diabetes to motorcycle accidents.

'He Wants To Run'

As Paul Martino, president of United Prosthetics, watches 38-year-old Mark Waitkevich test his new prosthetic leg socket, he says it's about as nice a walk as you'll ever see on any amputee.

"When I first started to learn how to walk, I concentrated on trying not to have a limp," says Waitkevich.

Two years ago, he lost his left leg just above the knee after a drunk driver crashed into him on his motorcycle. Waitkevich had always been active, so when woke up after surgery, it was a tough pill to swallow. But both he and Martino are pleased with his recovery. Waitkevich says he can do everything now — a pistol, a one legged squat.

"I don't even dream about stuff like that because I know better," Martino says.

Waitkevich quickly squats down so his heel almost touches his buttocks. His prosthetic leg is sticking straight out and he balances easily.

Throughout the hour-long appointment, Martino and Waitkevich joke and tease each other. Martino tells Waitkevich to slow down, Waitkevich tells him he's a big baby.

It's more like family banter than a patient-caregiver consultation.

"He just comes in here and makes me look bad, physically," Martino says.

"That's no excuse," says Waitkevich.

A CrossFit instructor, Waitkevich doesn't make excuses. He's worked hard over the last two years to get to this point. And on this day, Waitkevich is finally getting something he's wanted since the day he lost his leg.

"He wants to run," says Martino. "So, this is called the catapult. It's a foot specific for running."

The catapult looks like a big "c" curve. It's one of the prosthetic feet you might have seen runners use at the paralympics. The design allows them to run faster than they could with a normal prosthetic foot.

Martino takes the catapult out of the wrapper and attaches it on Waitkevich's prosthetic leg for the first time. Then Waitkevich stands up.

As he learns to balance, Waitkevich's face lights up with a look of awe. Only a few square inches of this super-light foot are actually touching the ground, supporting him. He takes his first steps, scraping his new "foot" along the ground.

"It's not a normal step," says Martino. "You have no heel-toe on this, this is all toe."

Waitkevich is used to applying pressure through his leg so that his foot hits the ground, heel to toe. Now, he has to learn a new way to walk — essentially just his toes, and he's practically giddy with the possibilities.

"Once we get some grass, I'm gonna run in the grass," he says.

"I would say that's like Christmas when you see their face. You're giving them something that's going to take them beyond where they are," says Martino. "Mark was a traumatic amputation. An active, young man. When he shows up here, put a prosthesis on him, we didn't want him to key in on being amputee. He put it on and do what he'd done before, with moderation. Get back to work or whatever makes them more comfortable and life becomes, you hate to say normal. You return them to a lifestyle they always knew."

The Workshop

On the second floor of United Prosthetics, the workshop looks remarkably low-tech. There are workbenches with vices holding prosthetic limbs in various stages of completion. Chris Martino, Paul Martino's son, is the business manager — and the fourth generation of Martinos to work in the family business.

Chis Martino says this is entirely different from what his great-grandfather did 100 years ago.

"This didn't exist," says Chis Martino. "Instead of plastics, acrylics, foam, carbon, they were made out of wood. They started as a large block and had to be scored out, it was a long process."

But today those new materials make the socket — the shell that covers and connects to what's left of a patient's injured limb — flexible, light and strong. But it all begins with plaster.

"A person comes in, we take a cast and fill it with plaster," says Chris Martino. "Then the magic of making the socket starts."

After last year's marathon bombing, eight of the survivors who lost limbs ended up at United Prosthetics. Chris and Paul Martino say, for the most part, they treat the marathon survivors the same way they care for their other patients.

"The challenge wasn't providing the prostheses. We see this every day. The hardest was setting expectations for the population," says Chris Martino. "As far as prostheses were capable of and how quickly they could achieve their goals. They can achieve and are, but for a lot of them, it occurred slower than anticipated."

Paul Martino always tells his patients that they're in the face of reality.

"We see amputees walking and running, but everyone's different," he says. "Everyone has different bodies. Sometimes people have expectations beyond that. My grandfather tells a story about someone who lost a hand. The person said, 'Can I play piano?' My grandfather said, 'Could you play before?' 'No.' Doesn't mean you're going to do things differently or better."

Chris Martino says the cliche of having to learn to crawl before you walk is very real here.

"This is a job I've been doing for a long time, and it feels good because I did something for that person and fabricated a good product," says Paul Martino. "We did our job, and that's why we're here."

He talks about his work in a straightforward way — as if it's just a job. But spend a little time with him, and it's clear that it's much more than that.

When asked about a particular story he feels most proud of, Paul Martino says individual ones stick out. That when he was younger, there were some younger amputees that didn't live. He chokes up remembering his patients, his eyes well with tears and he leaves the room.

"Oh man, you got him. That's rare," says Chris Martino. He then explains the story his father was going to tell. "Matthew Christian, Paul can tell you more, he was born without arms and legs and a tongue. He lived a fruitful life but passed away in his mid-20s. Paul was a large part of Matt's life, and vice versa."

"Is that who you're gonna talk about?" Chris Martino asks his father.

"There's always one. Sorry," says Paul Martino.

He says he didn't look at victims of the Boston Marathon bombings any differently, but that it was good to get them up as quickly as they did.

"We try to do that with everybody," says Paul Martino. "Unfortunately, insurance today doesn't allow us to do that. We had a free hand with all these people so we could move quickly."

He says that, in a lot of instances, donations covered the prosthetics. That he could move quickly because he didn't have to worry about the paperwork or finances he worries about with other patients.

"We work just as hard to get authorization from insurance companies as we do to physically make the product," he says.

"We probably spend more time spent on the administrative side than the fabrication," says Chris Martino.

"The fabrication is held up because of paperwork," says Paul Martino. "It's frustrating, because we see components I never thought I would in my lifetime. And we can't put it on people. It's difficult when trying to justify to an agency why we need this for an individual."

Modern prosthetics cost tens of thousands of dollars. Which brings us back to Mark Waitkevich and his new catapult foot. Mark is an athlete, but the catapult is not covered by his insurance.

The Martinos fought for Waitkevich. They connected him with one of their suppliers, a company called Freedom Innovations. As someone in great physical shape, Mark agreed to test new equipment for the company and, in return, he receives equipment from them — in this case his new foot. Waitkevich says it's one of many ways United Prosthetics has helped him.

"I like these guys, they're nice," he says. "Anytime I have a problem, I have his personal cell number, he gets me right in."

"This is not just product," says Paul Martino. He talks about the family business as much more than just a job. "There's an intimacy to all of this."

"Remember, you're dealing with individual whose circumstances have put them, not so much in your care, but brought you together," says Paul Martino. "In that coming together, you think about things a lot. You think about if you'd done the right thing by them. That can be whether you've fabricated a device or just sat and chatted, listened to what they had to say and gave them your opinion."

Part health care provider, part advocate, part confidant — it's all part of the the job for Paul Martino and the rest of his family at United Prosthetics — as they help get people back on their feet.

Guests

Paul Martino, prosthetist and president of United Prosthetics.

Chris Martino, business manager of United Prosthetics.

Mark Waitkevich, crossfit trainer who had his left leg amputated.

More

WBUR: Boston Hospitals Reflect With Pride On Marathon Bombing Response

  • "Early in the afternoon last April 15, Dave Reisman was laughing as he left a meeting to update hospitals around the city about conditions at the Boston Marathon. It looked like a light year for patients. The weather was sunny, but not too hot."

WBUR: Bittersweet Marathon Anniversary: Lost A Leg, Gained Cherished Friends

  • "Abbott was waiting to get into the Forum on Boylston Street last April when the second bomb went off. Sdoia had just stepped out of the restaurant to look for a friend nearing the finish line."

Here & Now: Marathon Bombing Survivor Loses Limbs But Finds New Life

  • “I don’t like seeing the pictures and I’ve seen a lot of horrible pictures, not just the one of Carlos and I in the chair… I’ve seen other pictures and you know, those ones scare me and they make me, you know, they just instantly make me want to cry and I shake after I see ‘em."

This segment aired on April 16, 2014.

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