Stepping forward so others can walk

Woburn hospital launches program to reuse artificial limbs

Joe Mantini of Woburn donated an artificial leg to New England Hospital’s new donation program, which sends limbs to other countries. Joe Mantini of Woburn donated an artificial leg to New England Hospital’s new donation program, which sends limbs to other countries. (Joanne Rathe/ Globe Staff)
By Brian Benson
Globe Correspondent / October 25, 2009

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While serving in the Army in the Vietnam War, Joe Mantini saw countless comrades lose limbs to land mines, bullets, and other dangers of war.

But Mantini, 65, escaped the conflict unscathed, only to have his right leg amputated in 2007 after it became infected after a fall.

Now the lifelong Woburn resident, who uses a prosthetic leg, cane, and scooter for mobility, is giving back to amputees in Third World countries by donating his old artificial leg. “These people don’t have the means, so anything we can do to help them, we should,’’ he said. “This is going to make someone’s quality of life so much better.’’

Mantini donated his old leg at New England Rehabilitation Hospital in Woburn for the launch of its limb donation drive, the first such formal program at a Greater Boston hospital. The prostheses are disassembled and sent to Limbs for Life, a national nonprofit organization that provides limbs to amputees in foreign countries who cannot afford one. While the program brought in 35 limbs in its first month, officials hope publicity from its launch will generate more in the months ahead.

“We’ll take them from anyone who brings them,’’ said Keith Poulin, the hospital’s director of outpatient services. “It’s our finding that they end up in the closet or under the bed, or even in the trash.’’

The frequency with which amputees need new artificial limbs varies. An athletic person might need one every two to three years, while one limb could last more than 10 years on a less active individual, Poulin said.

While New England Rehab launched the region’s first program, other area hospitals, such as Shaughnessy-Kaplan Rehabilitation Hospital in Salem, also accept used medical supplies, including artificial limbs.

“We’ll take walkers, power wheelchairs, really any kind of medical equipment that can be of help to someone who has a disability or rehabilitative need,’’ said Tim Sullivan, a spokesman for Shaughnessy-Kaplan. “If we can’t use it, we work with people in developing countries and community organizations that can.’’

New England Rehabilitation Hospital is a logical location to start a limb drive because of its relationship with amputees, said Paul Harney, president and founder of the FDR Center for Prosthetics and Orthotics.

“This is where people first come when they lose their legs,’’ he said. “It’s like a second home for amputees.’’

FDR builds custom prostheses and braces at offices in Burlington and Nashua and disassembles the limbs donated to the hospital, Harney said.

The disassembly process only takes a few minutes per limb, a small sacrifice given the benefits the limb will bring to a person who cannot afford one, he said.

“A mechanical knee can cost over $3,000,’’ Harney said, and an artificial leg can cost as much as $20,000. “It kind of puts it out of range when you think of the unfortunate situations people are in outside of this country.’’

The company has informally accepted artificial-limb donations for several years, collecting more than $500,000 worth of prostheses, he said.

The limbs are eventually sent to one of Limbs for Life’s clinics in the Dominican Republic; Lima, Peru; southeast Turkey; Mexico; Honduras; and Bazara, Iraq, said Craig Gavras, Limbs for Life’s executive director.

Artificial limbs cannot be reused in the United States because of product liability laws and hygiene concerns, although Gavras and Harney stressed that the donated limbs are checked for malfunctioning pieces and any unsanitary parts are not sent.

“It’s kind of one of those bittersweet things,’’ Gavras said. “It’s great that these limbs can go and help someone, but it would be nice if we could use them in the United States.’’

Limb reuse also reduces the amount of waste in landfills because the prostheses, which are made of titanium, aluminum, and laminated plastic, are not biodegradable, Harney said.

“It’s one less thing in the trash,’’ he said. “In this age of recycling, it seems like a very noble thing to do.’’

But, many potential donors, such as Peabody resident Marie Testa, did not know such a program existed.

“I didn’t want to throw it away, but I didn’t know what to do with it,’’ said Testa, who donated her deceased husband’s limb at the kickoff event after receiving a flier in the mail. “I think it’s a great program that they’re finding a new use for this stuff.’’

Harney said Testa’s predicament is felt among many amputees and their family members.

“Current amputees wonder: ‘Now that I’ve got a new leg, what do I do with my old one?’ ’’ he said. “Hopefully, this is something where people look at their old prosthetic limbs in a new way.’’

New England Rehabilitation Hospital accepts artificial limbs at its main Woburn facility or outpatient centers in Billerica and Framingham. For more information or to donate a prosthesis, contact the hospital at 781-935-5050 or the FDR Center for Prosthetics and Orthotics at 877-337-5462.

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