Story last updated at 5/14/2014 - 2:28 pm
Frostbite. Fishing accidents. Birth defects. Disease. Sports.
There's a lot that can happen to a limb, and for the thousands of people who need an extra hand (or foot) in Southeast, Elizabeth Einset can help.
Einset is a CPO (Certified Prosthetist and Orthotist) and owner of Southeast Alaska Prosthetics and Orthotics in Ketchikan, the only artificial limb business in the region. She helps those who have lost arms, legs, hands. She also - via the orthotics end of her business - supports body parts weakened by injury or disease. Some of her clients are athletes. Some suffer from cerebral palsy. Some have had traumatic accidents. Einset evaluates and works with each patient, molding the limb to fit the patient and choosing the prosthetic to fit their lifestyle.
She became interested in the field as a pre-medical student working to fund her way through college. She's worked in a variety of places, including Virginia, Washington, D.C., New Mexico, New York and Minnesota, but after 20 years in Southeast Alaska, she knows patients are different here.
"Our patient base is very functional. People who come and talk to me know what they want to do. They know the limitations that are bothersome to them," she said. They might tell her they want to be able to get onto a dock at low tide. They might tell her they love hiking.
"That's great, that's really freeing to me, that people are functional," she said. "You still want it to look as nice as you can, but it's not a secret that they're amputees or wearing a brace. That kind of stuff is awesome, because it gives me something to work with. Other places, they say 'I don't like it because it looks that way.' ... Yeah, but you can do what you've been missing. People in Southeast seem to know that."
When she moved to Southeast after deciding to live where she vacationed (she has family history in Ketchikan), she was working in hospitals. In 2002, she started Southeast Alaska's first consistent, permanent prosthetics and orthotics business.
She lives in Ketchikan but spends one week each month in Juneau. She's also in Metlakatla on a regular basis, and goes other places as well.
Einset said she'd like to figure out a way to serve rural communities better, perhaps through a rural grant.
Some of the "couple thousand" patients she's helped are transient - they broke their back and need a brace for six weeks.
"If I'm lucky, or if they're lucky, I'll never see them again," she said.
Some are repeat customers. Those who injure themselves playing sports, for example, might need to come in more than once.
Discounting injuries caused by war, diabetes is the cause of around half the amputations in the U.S., Einset said. In Southeast, she sees a lot of traumatic injuries: fishing accidents, industustrial calamities, snowmachine crashes, frostbite and mountain accidents.
"We live in a crazy place sometimes," she said.
Prosthetics for legs are much more common than those for arms, she said. That makes for some work, as feet are challenging.
"Ninety-five percent of my prosthetics patients are legs, and every leg needs a foot," she said.
The most challenging part of her job isn't crafting a socket for a limb, however. It's listening to patients' needs in a world where everyone has a different communication style.
"If I can do that, then I can meet their needs the best," she said. "And it's a fun job, too. It's very rewarding for me ... I hope it's as rewarding for them."
Technology has advanced amazingly since she started. One person she worked with asked her to craft wooden sockets, a process used as late as the 1980s. Recently, she fitted a patient with a waterproof electronic knee. It comes complete with a gyroscope that senses what the patient is trying to do and reacts according to that input.
"It's an amazing knee, and it's waterproof," she said. "That's unheard of. That's where things are going."
A favorite experience, one repeated over and over again, is when people roll into her office in wheelchairs and, after being fitted with their prosthesis, stand.
"It's very powerful how wonderful that is for people," she said. "Just giving people the freedom to negotiate the world back on two feet. ... Everyone is so rewarding, because they all have these goals. That's some of what makes us appreciate our life - being able to do the things we think are important."