Mel Stills: Catalyst for Progress

Home > Articles > Mel Stills: Catalyst for Progress

Mel Stills, CO(E), HFISPO, has been a catalyst, a mover and a shaker, a man who makes things happen. Not that he would tell you that. However, after talking with friends and colleagues who have worked alongside Stills over the years, it's clear that he's had a major impact on the prosthetics and orthotics profession throughout his 40-plus year career.

For instance , Stills was a prime force behind the founding of the prosthetics-orthotics program at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas.

"He was very instrumental in developing Southwestern's P&O program in the late '70s," recalls Susan Kapp, CPO, associate professor and program director. "There were not many services here in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and he and Dr. Mooney [Vert Mooney, MD], who was chairman of Orthopaedic Surgery, thought that since we had a huge medical center and school here, why not have a P&O school? Mel and Vert, working together, helped get that ball rolling."

Stills was working at the Dallas Rehabilitation Institute when he hired Kapp in 1981. "He was so encouraging and supportive. He was my mentor. He helped me take the direction I have professionally. He told me I needed to support the national P&O organizations, get involved with ISPO [International Society for Prosthetics and Orthotics], and do presentations and lectures.

"He encouraged me to apply to the university, get involved, and do good patient care." Over the years, Stills has encouraged others to get involved in O&P education and the UT Southwestern program, she adds.

Stills recalls jokingly that "I hired Susan to work with me at Dallas Rehab, and she ran off to the school and left me."

Stills also worked at Southwestern and at the nonprofit Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas.

Bringing Aid Organizations Together

Stills has been instrumental in bringing together international organizations to provide humanitarian P&O patient care and prosthetic/orthotic education in developing countries. As ISPO president from 1992-1995, he was a catalyst in bringing together the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Leahy War Victims Fund (LWVF) and ISPO to collaborate on humanitarian efforts.

Stills and Bob Viere, MD, apply a halo cast at Parkland Hospital, Dallas, Texas, 1995.
Stills and Bob Viere, MD, apply a halo cast at Parkland Hospital, Dallas, Texas, 1995.

The LWVF was established in 1989 after Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-VT) made a fact-finding trip to areas ravaged by wars and saw a large number of amputees and other civilian victims. Upon his return, he was able to get funding to aid civilian war victims added into the USAID budget.

USAID is the principal U.S. agency extending assistance to countries recovering from disaster, trying to escape poverty, and engaging in democratic reforms.

By the early 1990s, Stills was working with the LWVF/USAID and participated in one of the first trips to Vietnam to look at potential programming for amputees in south Vietnam, which was lagging behind the north in patient services, according to Rob Horvath, senior technical advisor to LWVF.

Shortly thereafter, Stills became president of ISPO. "Because of his relationship with the War Victims Fund and USAID, Mel approached us about holding a conference in Cambodia that would aim to review and discuss appropriate prosthetic technologies in the developing world," Horvath says. "From his trips, Mel realized that many different organizations were engaged in a variety of interventions in the field. He felt it would benefit not only the profession but also persons who needed services to bring people together to talk about how we could do a better job and what is meant by the term appropriate technology' in the developing world. What is appropriate for Europe and North America may not be for Africa and Asia, for example."

In 1995, the efforts of Stills and others were rewarded when a landmark conference on appropriate prosthetic technology was held in Cambodia under ISPO, the United Nation's World Health Organization (WHO), and USAID auspices. "It was a catalyst in pushing the development of new technologies and getting NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] to look at what they were doing and how they could be more effective," says Horvath.

The conference helped forge a strong, ongoing relationship between ISPO and USAID that continues today, Horvath adds. It also set the stage for other ISPO consensus conferences that followed, including a second conference on appropriate prosthetic technology, plus others on orthotics, P&O education, polio, and appropriate wheelchairs.

Fostering these partnerships has been one of the LWVF's "most significant accomplishments over the last ten years," Horvath says.

Bridge-Builder

Stills helps to evaluate a child at National Pediatric Hospital, Hanoi, Vietnam.
Stills helps to evaluate a child at National Pediatric Hospital, Hanoi, Vietnam.

"Mel's skills as a practitioner and his ability to help us bridge the work being done in the West with the work being done in the developing world have been invaluable to our success," Horvath says. "Mel's commitment to the field goes well beyond his work with the LWVF. Last year he and [his wife] Sue went to Cambodia for several weeks on their own time; Mel taught at the Cambodian School of Prosthetics and Orthotics [CSPO] and mentored young Cambodians and students from other nations. Sue, who comes from a medical administrative background, helped organize the office systems.

"Mel finds joy and satisfaction in being able to work with technicians who are young and fairly new to the field and help them to make a difference in the lives of others who are able to access P&O services for possibly the first time."

"He has raised the level of technical professionalism for us," says Cathy Savino, director, Technical Support Contract. "He brings such a wealth of experience, and he's a very good people person.' He can make complex technical ideas clear to the lay person. That is a gift that we have really come to appreciate. He can provide compelling reasons why and how certain things need to be done."

Still's ability to feel at home in a variety of circumstances and cultures also has impressed Savino. She recalls a time when the LWVF team was upcountry in Liberia where conditions were poor: the food was bad, the housing was very basic, and it was very hot. However, the early morning situation improved quite a bit when out of nowhere Stills conjured up some steaming coffee he had brought along. Stills has earned a reputation as someone who is always prepared. "I've never seen anything faze him...," says Savino.

Innovator

During the 1970s, Stills worked at Moss Rehabilitation Hospital/Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as chief of Orthotic/Prosthetic Research at the Krusen Center for Research and Engineering. Charles Pritham, CPO, FAAOP, another outstanding O&P professional who worked with Stills at the time, says, "Mel was heavily involved in developing and teaching methods for fabricating and fitting thermoplastic orthoses. While there, we collaborated with others on a manual dealing with lower-extremity orthotics. The techniques developed by Mel were the key to these efforts."

"None of these materials were developed for P&O," says Stills. "They were designed for other industries. People told us you couldn't do certain things with some of the plastics...after one of us had already done it!

"We had the opportunity to try out different materials just to see how they would work. That was a really fun part of my career."

"Mel was always on the forefront, always one of the first to adopt new technologies," says Kapp. "He is very innovative. If there was a problem without an obvious answer, he would ask himself, 'How do I make this happen?' Then he would work to find a solution."

Life, Career

Stills meets with his Commanding Officer, Oakland Naval Hospital, California 1966.
Stills meets with his Commanding Officer, Oakland Naval Hospital, California 1966.

Stills says he has always been interested in science and medicine. "When I joined the Navy, I requested and was sent to Hospital Corps School," he says. He later requested Navy Physical Therapy School, where he was more exposed to P&O. During the Vietnam War, he was sent to Field Medicine School and served with the Marine Corps as a Navy corpsman from 1963-66.

After Vietnam, he attended the Navy Orthopaedic Appliance Mechanics School at the Navy Prosthetic Research Laboratory (NPRL) at Oakland Naval Hospital and then went to the Naval Hospital Guam Marianas Islands, a primary evacuation site from Vietnam. "I think those three years on Guam and my Vietnam experience were what tweaked my interest in trauma and developing-world challenges," Stills says. "I got out of the Navy knowing I wanted to continue working in O&P."

Mel Stills offers this advice to his O&P colleagues:

  • "If you have a family, you need to balance work and family.One or both will suffer if you don't give each the attention they deserve."
  • "You're never finished with your education, and as a professional you have an obligation to help move your profession ahead. Sometimes you need to take some risks, but with thought and a bit of research you can minimize risks."
  • "Don't be afraid to volunteer-at home, church, community, or professionally."

In 1971, Stills was planning to study prosthetics at Northwestern University, Chicago, Illinois. However, when he arrived, due to a schedule change only orthotics was being offered. "I was married, had three kids, the GI Bill, and no money, so I took the orthotics course."

After graduation, Stills was offered a job interview with the Committee for Prosthetic Research and Development (CPRD), but realized that it was more academic than he wanted. Mike Quigley, CPO, told Stills about a job he had interviewed for at Moss Rehabilitation Hospital. "We basically traded jobs. I was able to apply some of the new technology at the time to patients, and Mike helped formulate the research reporting funded by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

"And so the adventure began," he says.

Stills' career also has included running his own practice in Texas while he continued his work with LWVF/USAID.

Mel and his wife Sue celebrate in Glasgow, 2005.
Mel and his wife Sue celebrate in Glasgow, 2005.

Looking back over his career, Stills says that his early mentors included Don Strand, CPO, and Phil Harkov, CPO, both at NPRL, who taught him that "challenges could be fun and that the individual needed your very best effort. Later, A. Bennett Wilson Jr. and a whole host of P&O professionals contributed to my development."

In 2006 Stills' contributions to his chosen profession were recognized when the American Academy of Orthotists and Prosthetists (the Academy) presented him with its highest honor, the Titus-Ferguson Award for lifetime achievement.

Retirement

Stills grew up on a farm in rural Iowa and was part of a large family, including two brothers and three sisters. After retiring a few years ago, he returned to his roots with his wife Sue. "That's the lifestyle and the personality of people I enjoy being around," he says. "We bought a little place right across the road from the farm I grew up on. I can see the old farmhouse from our house."

Stills has been married to Sue for 26 years. "We met in Dallas at the Dallas Rehabilitation Institute standing on a porch watching tornado clouds pass by--a real whirlwind romance,'?" Stills recalls. "I brought three kids to our marriage, and we enjoy very much seeing them and our four grandchildren."

Canning tomatoes at home in Iowa.
Canning tomatoes at home in Iowa.

Catching one of several salmon on Lake Michigan.
Catching one of several salmon on Lake Michigan.

Enjoying time with William, one of four grandchildren, 2002.
Enjoying time with William, one of four grandchildren, 2002.

Stills says he looks forward to enjoying retirement while still providing technical support for the Leahy War Victims Fund.

Mel Stills' Professional Influence

Rosie Jované C., O.P. (Panama) , assistant director, Marketing & Sales, International Department, Becker Orthopedic, Troy, Michigan, and who has been extensively involved in O&P education initiatives and organizations in Latin America: Mel has been an inspiration for us who are professionals in Latin America, not only by his example, but above all, because he believes in our potential and ability to provide O&P services.

We don't always have the best political, economic, or social circumstances, but what we will always have is our enthusiasm to continue improving and each time doing things better. When Mel was president of ISPO [International Society for Prosthetics and Orthotics], he greatly supported our activities in Latin America, not only through his post on the ISPO Executive Committee, but also by personally participating in programs such as the Consensus Conference on Amputation in Panama in 1994. His personal participation has emphasized his support of Latin American regional activities.

Although Mel is a specialist in orthotics, he has always supported interdisciplinary patient care and has always stayed in direct contact with professionals in other disciplines, keeping communication flowing among everyone on the rehabilitation team, whether or not the patient is ultimately referred to a physical therapy or rehabilitation program. I'd like to mention that we in Latin America will always remember Mel, and the Mexican professionals especially feel a strong affection for him.

In 1970 he presented a seminar in Guadalajara and gave the lecture with his "half-glasses." As a humorous gesture, the attendees decided to take up a collection to help Mel pay for the other half of his glasses, since we were kidding him about being "in denial" about needing bifocals.

Don Cummings, CP , Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children, Dallas:
I first met Mel Stills in 1982 when I started out in the very first class to go through the Prosthetics/Orthotics Program at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. Mel was an instructor with the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at UTSMCD, and also lectured and instructed us in many aspects of orthotics. We students would also shadow him as he worked with patients on the orthopedic wards in Dallas County's Parkland Hospital.

I remember being in awe of how much he knew about managing traumatic orthopedic injuries as well as with the great respect shown him by the orthopedic staff, residents, and fellows. In those days Mel would fly through rounds crunching peanut M&Ms and washing them down with coffee. I could not walk fast enough to keep up with him and the team. After rounds we'd stay to help him apply halos or fracture braces, and I remember thinking I'd never be as confident or adept at contouring the joints and applying the fiberglass and managing the patient so professionally.

With his patients, Mel was direct, tough, and competently swift as he worked, but somehow always managed to communicate compassion. His approach seemed to say, "This has to be done, I've done it many times before, so just relax, follow my instructions, and we'll get this applied correctly and as quickly and painlessly as possible."

It was not until I graduated and began working as a prosthetist that I began to appreciate Mel's concern for people with disabilities in developing countries. I was fortunate to be able to accompany him on several trips to Vietnam and Cambodia, where we did some work both for the Patrick Leahey War Victims Fund and ISPO. Vietnam was a particularly interesting place to work with him since Mel had served there as a corpsman assisting wounded soldiers during the Vietnam War, and was quick to point out many of the old bases as we traveled.

Wherever we went, Mel always expected the best of people working in O&P, and if he saw a need for improvement in practice or instruction, his focus was always on helping others to improve the quality of treatment they provided their patients. It seemed that no matter where in the world I went, people in orthotics and prosthetics knew Mel and respected him. With regard to patient care in orthotics and prosthetics, I believe he is so respected and appreciated worldwide because his message was and still is clear and simple: "Provide the highest possible quality patient care you can with the resources available to you, and never stop learning or striving to do better." It has been an honor to call him a mentor and privilege to be his friend.

Read Stills' advice on volunteering or obtaining paid employment with international humanitarian groups, " How O&P Professionals Can Make a Difference ".