Finding Solutions, Not Problems

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By Brady Delander

Kevin Carroll has devoted his life to helping people, and he has changed the face of prosthetics in the process.

Delander
Delander

Kevin Carroll, MS, CP, FAAOP, is one of the most recognizable faces in the world of prosthetics, and it's not just because he travels regularly across the United States to solve the most problematic cases in the industry. During a given week, Carroll might present a lecture to fellow practitioners on Monday in California, check on as many as 35 patients on Wednesday in Ohio, and then return home to Florida for the weekend.

On the weekends, don't expect to find Carroll, vice president of prosthetics for Hanger Orthopedic Group, Bethesda, Maryland, on the golf course. Do, however, look poolside, as Carroll spends many Saturdays and Sundays playing-and working-with a certain bottlenose dolphin.

"Work is my golf. That is what I do on the weekends, and I'm enjoying it," says Carroll. These days, nearly every workweek ends at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida, which houses one of the most recognizable aquatic mammals in prosthetics-Winter the dolphin.

Kevin Carroll, MS, CP, FAAOP
Kevin Carroll, MS, CP, FAAOP

Carroll, who lives in Orlando, made Winter famous, and vice versa, to a certain extent, by doing what he does best-tackling the most challenging amputation cases head on. Perhaps it is fitting that the tireless Carroll, like dolphins, never seems to sleep.

"Kevin does not sit behind a desk. He is out every day in the field, working with patients and practitioners," says Randy Richardson, a licensed prosthetic assistant and longtime friend and co-worker of Carroll. "You will not find a more caring individual, one who is totally dedicated to the profession and helping people."

The Heart of Ireland

Born in Roscrea, a small town in central Ireland that developed around a monastery founded in the seventh century, public service has been a part of Carroll's life from his earliest days. May, Carroll's mother, taught her son that wealth isn't about dollars and cents. "As a child growing up in Ireland, my mother was very involved with volunteering and fundraising," Carroll says. "Mom has always been interested in caring for people, so I grew up around that idea... She is still in Ireland, and she is still full of energy."

Carroll studied at St. Joseph's College in Dublin and continued his training in Ireland. He began his practice in 1978 at the National Medical Rehabilitation Center in Dublin before acquiring a one-year visa in 1984 to visit the United States and its prosthetic facilities and to continue his education. He went on to earn degrees in gerontology, counseling psychology, and family studies.

His last U.S. stop was New York University (NYU) in Manhattan, where a pivotal encounter took place. Carroll met with the late H. Richard Lehneis, PhD, CPO, then a research professor of rehabilitation medicine at the NYU School of Medicine and an influential figure in O&P. Lehneis suggested that Carroll stay in New York as an exchange student. "It took me by surprise when he said that," Carroll says. "Dr. Lehneis gave me great encouragement, and if it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be here."

Working with Lehneis and his colleagues convinced Carroll that he wanted to continue working in the States. "After that one year I was hooked on the American system of healthcare and its delivery," Carroll says. "In Ireland, with socialized medicine, there is always a waiting list. Here, if you needed something, it seemed like you got it straightaway."

Back in the USA

Carroll went back to Ireland when his visa expired, but not for long. Upon his return to the United States, he worked for NovaCare Orthotics & Prosthetics as its vice president of prosthetics until 1999, when Hanger acquired the facility. Over the course of his 30-year career, Carroll has established a legendary resumé.

He is a member of the International Society for Prosthetics and Orthotics (ISPO), the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers (NAPGCM), and the British Association of Prosthetics and Orthotics (BAPO). He has also served as professional advisor to the Amputee Coalition of America (ACA). He is a fellow of the American Academy of Orthotists and Prosthetists (the Academy), and he is a professional and editorial advisor for a variety of O&P publications, including The O&P EDGE.

"Kevin is a visionary, a motivator, a creator-he does it all," says Hanger's Dan Strzempka, CPO, LPO, "He truly has a love for prosthetics. It's his life. There are not many amputees who have not been affected by him, including me.... He'll set up workshops around the country where he will see [35 or more] patients in a day."

Carroll is an author, practitioner, educator and lecturer, and researcher, and he is also on a first-name basis with the airlines. "In the world of traveling, you know who a person is by the airline mileage they've racked up. He's an executive , and when you get to that level, you are always on the road... His family misses him a lot, but so do the people that he helps around the world," says Dana Bowman, a motivational speaker, bilateral amputee, and one of Carroll's patients. "Kevin is a master of all trades. He touches peoples' lives-old, young, disabled, you name it."

Solutions, Not Problems

Kevin Carroll, who spends countless hours working with patients across the country, watches triple-amputee Cameron Clapp navigate stairs using prostheses.
Kevin Carroll, who spends countless hours working with patients across the country, watches triple-amputee Cameron Clapp navigate stairs using prostheses.

Early in his career, Carroll developed a reputation as the "go-to" clinician for especially challenging prosthesis fittings. Bowman, a retired Army Special Forces soldier and avid skydiver, was one of many who needed Carroll's expertise, but Bowman said it was he who did the first evaluation when the two met in 2000 and not the other way around. "I put my hand out there and started counting off what I wanted. I said, I want to water ski, jet ski, skydive, fly planes.' I just kept rattling them off," Bowman says.

Carroll's response? "He said, 'Not asking for much, are you?' I told him that I just wanted my life back," Bowman recalls. Bowman did get his life back, and he has been giving back in return ever since. He is a certified peer visitor for the ACA and a member of the International Speakers Bureau and the National Speakers Association. He was named Veteran of the Year in 1995 and travels to give speeches nearly as much as Carroll does.

Success stories like Bowman's seem to spring up wherever Carroll goes. Brian Kolfage, a veteran of the Iraq war and triple amputee, struggled to adjust to his lower-limb prostheses until Carroll found a gel-like substance to pad the irritated area. The substance was one Carroll had developed for use on Winter. "I really didn't think it would work, but it was like the difference between night and day," Kolfage told USA Today.

As much praise as Carroll deserves for these solutions to difficult problems, he refuses to take credit. "I don't credit myself with any one innovation," he says. "A team can move mountains." His standing in the prosthetic community is unquestioned, as is his humble demeanor. "I've know Kevin since 1987, and I've never seen a hint of a big ego," says Richardson. "You'd think that after a long day, maybe over dinner, you would hear him say something that would make you think different, but it's just not there."

Carroll readily gives out his cell phone number to his patients and their families, and almost anyone else who asks for it. He was practically born helping those in need, and there does not appear to be any signs of him slowing down. "What motivates me is the success that I see," Carroll says. "I see a person who lost both legs, and then you see that person up and running and jumping. I know that I was a part of that success, and that gives me a huge amount of energy.... I have to be passionate; it's healthcare. It's not a 9-to-5 job, it's 24/7.

Winter in Florida

Above: Carroll checks the fitting of a liner. Photographs courtesy of Randy Richardson, Hanger Orthopedic Group.
Above: Carroll checks the fitting of a liner. Photographs courtesy of Randy Richardson, Hanger Orthopedic Group.

The story of Winter the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin is well known. Found caught in a crab trap off the coast of Florida, Winter arrived at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium clinging to life, and her badly damaged tail fluke slowly fell off, leaving only a stump.

Carroll assembled a team of experts, including Strzempka, and dove headfirst into the daunting task of fitting Winter with a new tail. The challenges were vast: salt water, the dolphin's sensitive skin, and the design needed to mimic the powerful mechanics of the tail, among many others.

"We initially found that Winter had a lot of open wounds, and we had to be cautious about using any prosthetic device," Carroll says. "One particular material was very soft, and that allowed us to ply the material on to her body. It took six months to desensitize her to get a liner on her body." (Editor's note: For more information, see the April 24, 2007 EDGE Industry Review article "Carroll to Help Develop Dolphin Prosthesis")

Carroll has worked on other animals, including an ostrich, but there is little question that Winter has been the greatest challenge. "Kevin is not only unafraid of these types of difficult cases, he searches them out," Strzempka says. "Sometimes a person who is that respected and well-known would be set in his ways. But Kevin is constantly looking for better ways to do stuff. His creativity is amazing."

Despite his hectic schedule, Carroll is a devoted family man. His wife, Mary, is a physical therapist and "in the business" of helping people, as is the couple's son, Michael, who is currently looking to enter prosthetic school. Their teenage daughter, Aoife, has developed the artistic side for which Carroll is sometimes known. "Kevin is a great musician," Bowman says. "He loves to play the mandolin and other instruments."

Carroll examines a prototype of the prosthesis used on Winter the dolphin.
Carroll examines a prototype of the prosthesis used on Winter the dolphin.

Though Carroll says, "work is my golf," there has been a Carroll sighting on the golf course. Sure, he was only there for some of his patients, making sure that their prostheses worked correctly, but he was out on the links. "Kevin was at a golf course once. He has actually held a club in his hands," says Richardson. "He certainly should stick to prosthetics."

Carroll has no problem with that. There are enough problematic amputee cases to keep his schedule packed for years to come. "Some people will say the sky is falling, that the future of prosthetics is bleak," Carroll says. "But every day the future gets brighter and brighter and brighter."

He says he is particularly impressed with the advances in computerized technologies and believes that those technologies will lead the prosthetics profession into the future. "The technologies out there are amazing, and what's on the drawing board is only the beginning. We have to keep an open mind to what comes our direction."

Brady Delander can be reached at  brady@opedge.com