|Dr. John Hattingh, owner of Prosthetic Care Facility of Virginia, took on Laucey Phipps as a pro-bono client after posting on Facebook that he was looking for an amputee who couldn’t afford treatment. Phipps was born with club feet that left her unable to walk after multiple corrective surgeries. She had them amputated so she could walk and even run on prosthetics with Hattingh’s help. He also funds her travel expenses from her home in Texas. —Times-Mirror staff photo/Beverly Denny|
Parents all know the drill. When you meet that newest addition to your family, you look him over and then count: 10 fingers, 10 toes.
When Lacey Phipps was born she had the 10 fingers and 10 toes. But the toes – and the feet – weren't exactly the way they were supposed to be.
Phipps was born with congenital talipes equinovarus, better known as club foot. It was bilateral, meaning both her right and left foot appeared to curve inward.
Club foot itself is not a rare disorder by any means, occurring in one in every 1,000 live births. Club foot affects three joints in the foot to varying degrees: the subtalar joint (in between the ankle and the heel), the talonavicular joint (mid-foot) and the ankle joint proper. Treatment can vary based on the severity, with minor cases able to be treated by the Ponseti Method, which involves casting the body into the correct position, or minor outpatient surgery.
Phipps' case was not minor.
She had her first surgery at 1-year-old. Unsuccessful, doctors tried again – seven times on each foot.
“They cut some things, fused some things, but spasticity took over and did what nature had provided me. It went back to the way it was,” Phipps said. “Eventually when they finished the surgeries they told me no more could be done.”
Phipps resigned herself to a wheelchair.
At 12, doctors told her that amputation was the only possible remaining solution. Phipps was willing to try, but her parents had qualms.
“I think it was difficult for my parents and it's still difficult. They had to give up this whole perfect child idea, but there was no making my feet perfect. No amount of surgery was going to make my feet perfect,” Phipps said.
“They always thought the next doctor would have a solution we could live with,” Phipps continued. “Yeah, 10 doctors ago they had a solution I could live with.”
Phipps's parents encouraged her to wait until she was legally an adult to amputate her legs, which she did.
On July 25, 2012, at age 22 and in the middle of her college career at Texas Tech University, Phipps received a transfemoral (above knee) amputation on her right leg at Covenant Children's Hospital in Lubbock, Texas. Five months later, on Dec. 17, her left leg was removed. Phipps spent Christmas recovering and rehabilitating from her surgery.
Charity groups visited her and the other patients to pass out gifts to those stuck at the hospital.
Phipps got toe socks.
The African doctor
John Hattingh, a South African native, was drawn to prostheses early in his career.
After receiving his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Witwatersrand, Hattingh went on to study biomechanical engineering for his master's degree. The man in charge of Hattingh's program was an amputee.
“That's how I sort of got introduced to amputations and prostheses,” Hattingh said. “I decided that I had a huge interest in making it better.”
So Hattingh traveled to Germany to begin studying how to become a prosthetist, receiving what he called “the best schooling I could have gotten anywhere in the world.”
But trouble in Africa brought Hattingh back to his native country – namely the South African Border War, commonly called the Angolan Bush War. As an adult South African man, Hattingh was conscripted.
He then elected to stay in South Africa and re-wrote his boards to become certified there. In 1979, he began practicing in his native country.
Eleven years later, he left.
“We wanted to come to the biggest, strongest country in the world and we never wanted to face racial stuff ever again,” Hattingh explained. “We have four kids, and we really wanted our kids to grow up in a relatively normal environment.”
It would be prosthetics that brought Hattingh and his family to America, through a sponsorship from the University of Washington.
“I was part of the group of engineers that came up with a silicone suspension system. The University of Washington and the private practice wanted to develop this more,” Hattingh said. “That was my ticket into the country.”
Hattingh and his family lived in Seattle for two decades, developing a thriving private practice while simultaneously educating new generations of prosthetists.
And two shall meet
While Phipps' surgery was a success, her prostheses fitting was far more tenuous.
Her new legs were heavy, clunky and poor-fitting. Phipps' attempts at walking were futile, often spent falling down.
A fellow amputee tipped her off to a Facebook post from a prosthetist in Virginia offering pro-bono work to a deserving individual.
That man was John Hattingh.
Hattingh is no stranger to philanthropic work; during his time in Seattle, 10 percent of profits were utilized for charitable work. In 2010, Hattingh and his wife left Seattle to do nonprofit prosthetic work in South Africa and Namibia.
Upon the birth of their grandson, the Hattinghs returned stateside, this time electing to settle on the East Coast.
In 2012, the Hattingh's established a new practice, the Prosthetic Care Facility of Virginia in Lansdowne. Less than two years into their new practice, the Hattinghs decided to revive some of their charitable work, soliciting for candidates Facebook.
“We actually had an amazing number of applicants. But Lacey's story just really pulled at our heartstrings,” Hattingh said. “She had been struggling all her life. She needed a break.”
In July, the Hattinghs picked up the expenses and flew Phipps to Virginia.
From there, the work began. After fitting her with new, sleek and properly fitting prostheses, the two got to work building up leg strength and teaching Phipps how to walk.
After three marathon days of intense and exhausting practice, the girl who couldn't even stand from her wheelchair walked unassisted.
“Just being able to ambulate without pain is something I've never experienced in my entire life. Back when I had feet, even sitting them on the foot plates of my wheelchair was just excruciating,” Phipps said. “Now I can walk, I can bear weight, and that is just something I've never been able to experience in my whole life.”
In August, the Hattinghs flew Phipps to Virginia again to make adjustments to the sockets on the prostheses and do some more work walking. According to Hattingh, after the initial treatment, the residual limbs start to consolidate and get smaller, necessitating some adjustments.
Hattingh says most amputees are fully rehabilitated around the one-year mark, though he notes as someone who was previously non-ambulatory, Phipps doesn't really have a baseline. Still, Hattingh has high hopes.
“I predict that in one year from when we started treating her, she'll be able to do whatever she wants to do,” Hattingh said.
And Phipps has many things she wants to do. She looks forward to finally being able to participate in the Irish Dancing Club at school. She wants to run and ride a bicycle for the first time. And her legs will help her professionally; she wants to go to medical school to study pediatrics. She is currently volunteering at a cancer ward.
“I spend at least five hours a day on them running my bum off at the hospital,” Phipps says with smile.
Phipps and Hattingh's relationship is far from over. Hattingh intends to treat her as long as he is can.
“It doesn't matter where she ends up in the world, we're going to keep treating her,” Hattingh says.
And Phipps assures that she will always be grateful to the couple she found on Facebook.
“I'm going to be forever thankful,” Phipps said. “He managed to change my life in a month's time.”
|Laucey Phipps laughs with her doctor John Hattingh and a reporter Aug. 14. --Times-Mirror Staff Photo/Beverly Denny|
|Laucey Phipps demonstrates how she walks on a special mat that sends extensive information about her gait to her doctor to adjust her prosthetics. --Times-Mirror staff photo/Beverly Denny|
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