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Wednesday, September 18, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Front & Center: Accident in military leads to career in prosthetics, orthotics

Jim Cahill, who lost his foot in 1985 while serving with the Coast Guard, purchased Thompson’s Custom Orthotics and Prosthetics with partner Henry Bennett in 2000. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Jim Cahill, who lost his foot in 1985 while serving with the Coast Guard, purchased Thompson’s Custom Orthotics and Prosthetics with partner Henry Bennett in 2000. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
By Michael Guilfoil For The Spokesman-Review

Jim Cahill says his “being in the wrong place at the wrong time” led to the right career.

But he doesn’t recommend that route.

Back in 1985, Cahill was on a U.S. Coast Guard rescue mission off the coast of Santa Barbara when a line coiled around his leg and sliced through his ankle.

“They retrieved my foot from the water and reattached it, but by the following day it had turned purple and was re-amputated.”

Cahill’s career in the Coast Guard was over, but gradually a new one emerged: he would become a certified prosthetist and orthotist, fitting people with artificial limbs or braces.

“Because of my own experience,” he said, “I can answer patients’ questions before they ask them. I know this is a big thing for them, and I treat it that way.”

In 2000, Cahill and a partner, Henry Bennett, bought Thompson’s Orthotics and Prosthetics.

This is one of their busiest months.

“Young patients like to get their new legs, their new braces, so they can buy new shoes before heading back to school,” he explained.

During a recent interview, Cahill discussed guinea pigs, peg legs and do-overs.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Cahill: Lewiston, Idaho.

S-R: What interested you in high school?

Cahill: Baseball and shop. I liked building stuff.

S-R: What was your first job?

Cahill: I delivered newspapers from fifth to 10th grade.

S-R: Did you attend college?

Cahill: Eventually. But right out of high school I felt like 12 years in a row was enough, so I enlisted in the Coast Guard. I was in law enforcement, drug enforcement and was a rescue swimmer. Not long after I joined, I had my accident.

S-R: You must have realized your life was changed forever. Were you depressed?

Cahill: No, because my family situation was perfect. My folks and my high school sweetheart, Stacey, who’s now my wife, were flown down to Ventura and were at the hospital with me the next day.

S-R: Then what?

Cahill: I was discharged – or medically retired – from the Coast Guard, and treated in the VA system. Within three months they had me in my first prosthesis and paid for my education. I put in three years at Spokane Community College, SFCC and Boise State. Then I moved to Seattle and was kind of a guinea pig for University of Washington researchers experimenting with new prosthetics. They had me running on treadmills, trying out new feet. And that got me in with the right people to get accepted into their prosthetics and orthotics program as a student.

S-R: How many people were in your UW program?

Cahill: Twelve.

S-R: How many were amputees?

Cahill: Just me. But it’s not unusual for amputees to gravitate to this career. Three of our six practitioners are.

S-R: Your accident obviously changed you physically. How else did it change you?

Cahill: It made me more empathetic. My first prosthesis was horrible, and I didn’t have anyone to tell me what to expect. I wore that thing for a year and a half when I should have worn it only three months. Since becoming a prosthetist, I’ve taken it upon myself to not let anyone slip through the cracks the way I did.

S-R: How many different prosthetics have you had since that first foot?

Cahill: Probably 15.

S-R: Is that normal, or due to a professional interest?

Cahill: That’s very normal, because your leg constantly changes – it shrinks, and the volume changes. In the beginning you go through two legs the first year. The next one might last two years, and eventually they last longer – on average four to five years.

S-R: How have artificial legs evolved?

Cahill: They’ve come a long way since 1985. Back then, the Seattle Lightfoot was top of the line – the most energy-storing foot. Nowadays, nobody uses that.

S-R: What’s “energy-storing” mean?

Cahill: It puts a little spring in your step. Today most feet achieve better results with carbon fiber.

S-R: How much have prices changed?

Cahill: Building a below-the-knee prosthesis is like accessorizing a car, and the last item is the foot. The foot I wore back in 1985 cost around $450. The one I wear now is $8,000. The whole prosthesis is probably around $18,000.

S-R: How many jobs did you have before buying Thompson’s in 2000?

Cahill: Only one. I graduated from the University of Washington in 1994 and worked for another company here in town.

S-R: How has the business evolved since you took over?

Cahill: In 2000, we had six employees. Now we have 22, and we’ve never had a down year.

S-R: Do more people need prosthetics and orthotics today than they did in 2000?

Cahill: I wouldn’t say that it’s increased. Our business has grown because we’re locally owned and have an excellent team of clerical staff, technicians who went through SFCC’s program and practitioners with master’s degrees.

S-R: How has technology changed prosthetics in recent years?

Cahill: One improvement has been myoelectrics (externally powered artificial limbs controlled via electrical signals generated by users’ muscles). Another is microprocessor knee prosthetics that constantly sense the ground and allow users to choose different modes depending on their activity: walking, running, bicycling.

S-R: Do you remember the TV show “Six Million Dollar Man” back in the ’70s?

Cahill: I do.

S-R: How close are we to prosthetics that can make amputees superhuman?

Cahill: We’re a long way from that. Prosthetics continue to get better – lighter, stronger. But there are limitations.

S-R: Have attitudes toward artificial limbs evolved?

Cahill: Yes. Prosthetic legs used to be cosmetically finished to resemble real legs. After 9/11, the military threw a lot of money at microprocessor knees. About the same time, overall public awareness was heightened. It seemed every other commercial during the Super Bowl featured an amputee. Now, instead of covering up, people want these cool looking things – shiny, bright, carbon fiber – that don’t look like legs anymore. They look more like robotic limbs.

S-R: Do patients make unusual requests?

Cahill: All the time. Secret compartments. Bottle openers mounted on legs. And everyone gets custom colors – whatever they want.

S-R: If someone asks, can you make prostheses that are virtually indistinguishable from real limbs?

Cahill: To a degree, yes. We can match the patient’s skin tone. The synthetic skin doesn’t have hair, but it looks pretty real.

S-R: Which age group is most comfortable with prosthetics?

Cahill: For pediatrics, they’re not a big deal at all. I think geriatrics are least comfortable.

S-R: What’s your typical day like?

Cahill: I usually see eight to 10 patients for either orthotics or prosthetics. I do a lot of counseling, whether it’s advising a patient on the possibility of an amputation and the outcomes, helping a child walk for the first time or getting a vet back on his feet.

S-R: What’s your favorite customer reaction?

Cahill: Tears of joy.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Cahill: That I get to help somebody every day.

S-R: What do you like least?

Cahill: Dealing with Medicare reimbursements.

S-R: What’s been your best idea?

Cahill: The snowboarding prosthesis I designed is unique and enables people to get down the hill faster.

S-R: What can and can’t you do with your prosthetic foot?

Cahill: I can do pretty much everything I did before, with a few adjustments. Instead of skiing, I snowboard. Instead of a water skier, I’m a wakeboarder.

S-R: Do you occasionally do things you would discourage patients from trying?

Cahill: Yeah. (laugh) I don’t always act my age. I do some stupid stuff.

S-R: How many prostheses do you have?

Cahill: Three. My normal day-to-day. My snowboarding leg, which doubles as my wakeboarding leg. And my Halloween peg leg for my pirate costume. I made that from a Louisville Slugger bat I found at Goodwill.

S-R: What’s the outlook for this career?

Cahill: They say by 2025 we’ll only be able to service 60 percent of our patients because of growing demand. One reason is diabetes. Poor blood flow causes severe foot sores, requiring around 88,000 amputations per year nationwide.

S-R: How often do you think of that terrible moment when your own foot fell into the ocean?

Cahill: Every day.

S-R: If you could have a do-over, would you?

Cahill: No way. In high school I was going down the wrong path. I’m a better person because of the accident.

Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at mguilfoil@comcast.net.

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