O&P Community Involvement Thrives Despite Pandemic

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By Betta Ferrendelli

Though the novel coronavirus has managed to strain time, energy, and resources, and forced social distancing for most O&P businesses, there is one thing the virus has failed to do—stop those businesses from connecting with and
giving back to their local communities.

Despite the pandemic's grip, O&P businesses still strive to keep their communities at the forefront, from packaging care kits for senior citizens, collecting and refurbishing prostheses for people to use in less resourced countries, to putting lower-limb prostheses on American Girl dolls for children with limb loss.

The idea of making prosthetic lower limbs for dolls was brought to Erik Schaffer, CP, founder and CEO, A Step Ahead Prosthetics, Hicksville, New York, years ago by one of his four daughters.

"It was a project we initiated in-house decades ago," Schaffer says. "We fabricate and install prosthetic limbs on American Girl dolls to match their pediatric amputee owners, regardless of where they live in the world or which facility they go to for care," he says. "They send us a doll and a return label, and we provide the ‘surgery' and prosthesis for free. Our doll prosthetics were officially adopted by American Girl and have reached thousands of [children] around the world."

Giving Back, a Company Philosophy

Schaffer says his company's task when it comes to giving back is simple. "Our mission is to give to individuals with limb loss the tools, information, and resources necessary to achieve their goals," he says. "As an extension of our mission, we provide amputee advocacy and educational services, as well as participate in humanitarian efforts, which extends far beyond our local community."

At Ability Prosthetics and Orthotics, Exton, Pennsylvania, the community is at the center of the company's ethos, says Kathleen DeLawrence, COO. "Ability is an action-oriented company, and our culture instills the practice of volunteerism in our employees. We strive to find ways to get and keep our patients active in their daily lives once we have provided them the device to do so successfully," she says. "We work diligently within the communities we serve to be good stewards of care, develop long-standing relationships with the healthcare professionals we partner with, and support the communities by giving back to causes that integrate this passion."

Myriad Ways of Giving Back

Most O&P businesses consider anyone with limb loss and limb difference part of their communities.

Union Orthotics & Prosthetics and De La Torre Orthotics and Prosthetics, both headquartered in Pittsburgh, have participated in numerous hospital-based events that represent aspects of O&P and have continually supported other events such as the annual American Diabetes Association Tour de Cure bike ride, says Joyce Perrone, business development director, Union O&P and De La Torre O&P. (Union recently acquired De La Torre.) "Our outreach to the prosthetic community has included an annual women's event, all-amputee events, and an amputee picnic, as well as walking clinics," Perrone says.

De La Torre O&P has also provided support for attendance at the Amputee Coalition's Hill Day and annual conference, and the American Orthotic and Prosthetic Association's policy forum in Washington DC, she says.

Each event has been a benefit not only to those who attend, but to the staff as well, she says. "Pulling together the amputee community, their caregivers, and practitioners to first better understand their needs and then to help meet those needs in various ways," she says. "After doing the first one, we were hooked on the joy and happiness of the attendees."

Being an O&P company with an international reach, A Step Ahead Prosthetics goes a step further. "We consider our community any and all amputees who need assistance," Schaffer says. "Be it distributing hundreds of fleece blankets to Long Island's most needy, collaborating with philanthropists to provide sport prosthetic equipment to young amputee athletes, or installing prosthetic legs on American Girl dolls."

Successful Planning

What goes into planning a community event and making it successful?

Each company has its own methods to make the occasion successful—from a team approach, which can include the entire company, or a select event committee that does the lion's share of planning.

At Union O&P, "an active and fully engaged committee is always the way, with someone organized and communicative to keep it all together," says Ann Leimkuehler Moss, president of the newly merged company. "A vision of the event has to be established, and [then] feet on the ground to help physically set it up and get it to move along as seamlessly as possible."

The collective genius is always better to make great ideas happen, she says. "One always has to be careful to have a good mix of people in the committee," she says. "You want the ones who generate ideas, the high-detail people, and the ones who will keep the team moving toward the shared vision."

At Ability P&O, with 11 offices in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and North Carolina, events are planned at the local level, DeLawrence says. "Each territory is unique in its needs, and then some events are repeated across all regions when appropriate," she says.

Ability offices co-sponsor an adaptive ski event each winter. In February, before cases of COVID-19 were widespread in the United States, Ability co-hosted the Penn State Health Adaptive Ski event. "We commit both the financial resources needed for adaptive participants to join without having to pay—members from each of our groups volunteer that day to help with the event, and we outsource the adaptive ski training and equipment to a third-party provider who is skilled in this offering."

Ideas for events can come from Ability staff members, healthcare partners, and local groups who reach out to collaborate, DeLawrence says. "We always involve the local [Ability] team in the planning efforts with oversight from their regional director and me to ensure success and support their needs," she says. "We want to make sure that every event is impactful and delivers on the commitment to the groups involved."

In addition, Ability encourages its non-clinical staff to attend events. The experience, DeLawrence says, serves to draw support staff closer to the company mission.

In the past, A Step Ahead has collaborated with entities that came to the company because of its expertise and community outreach, Schaffer says. "We are usually more involved on the supporting aspect of programs and events, be it sponsoring a 5K run in Central Park, or sending one of our prosthetists to South America to treat local amputees at no cost, than on the organizing and planning side."

At Bionic Prosthetics and Orthotics Group, Merrillville, Indiana, community events are planned by a team, and potential ideas are discussed in weekly or monthly meetings, says Rani Saxena, DPT, president. "We are open to suggestions from all staff members and attempt to do something where we can see a direct impact," she says.

Zoom, Zoom, Zoom

It is safe to say that most companies have utilized the virtual meeting avenue as a way to stay connected during the pandemic.

Like most O&P facilities, Bionic P&O has used weekly Zoom meetings, social media, and quarterly newsletters as a way of staying in touch regularly with members of its community.

Ability has focused on its email marketing campaigns to stay better connected. "We have increased our social media presence significantly in order to reach our patients and the communities we support," DeLawrence says. "Our patient success storytelling has increased, we are acknowledging happenings in the community on behalf of our local partners and utilize our email marketing campaigns to share new
information on a regular basis."

A Step Ahead continues to increase its social media presence, Schaffer says. "Over the years our community has grown immensely," he says. "We not only share our testimonials and our patients' experiences, we diligently offer our knowledge to the broader amputee community [via groups and online forums]." According to Schaffer, in the first quarter of 2020, A Step Ahead's social media channels reached more than one million users, triggering more than three million engagements.

Special Events

The O&P clinicians and administrators we spoke with say there's not a single event that stands out from the rest as the best or better than the others; they all equally have their place, they say.

"The most incredible impact one can experience is sharing in a patient's first after they have been given the ability to walk again or ride a bike after receiving a new hand and arm," DeLawrence says. "That feeling is indescribable and so emotional. It's almost impossible not to get involved given the intimacy we create with our patients.

"I can't say that any one event stands out because each one has its own unique aha moment—the first time back on the slopes, first time walking a half mile or dancing with a loved one. The list of firsts is as unique as each patient."

Bionic P&O recently volunteered in the Packalooza Cares event in Lake County, Indiana, an annual occasion—contactless this year—to create care kits for seniors, Saxena says. Volunteers for Bionic P&O purchased everything, including fruit cups, tissues, notepads, and pencils, among other things. The items were packaged with a hand-written card of encouragement and taken to area drop-off locations. "We put together 100 care kits," Saxena says.

Staying Connected Despite COVID-19

There's little argument that the pandemic has affected every organizations' attempts to continue to operate fully and completely within their communities.

While giving back philanthropically is no exception, staying connected in a limited-access setting continues to have it challenges, clinicians and administrators agree.

"The impact of the pandemic has eliminated the opportunity to conduct in-person events that really can drive a sense of community," DeLawrence says. "Given this limitation, we are hopeful we can continue to work with our community partners until we are able to host live events again."

One of Ability's most successful and popular community events is hosting its limb disassembly day, which has been an ongoing, annual benefit for the Range of Motion Project (ROMP). Pre-pandemic, Ability would team up with students and volunteers within the local community to spend a day disassembling used prostheses that have been donated to Ability from around the country. While COVID-19 has put a temporary stop to the event being held in person, Ability continues to collect donations, DeLawrence says. "Instead of hosting disassembly days with a group from the community, our practitioners are taking the time to dismantle the limbs and packaging the parts to send to ROMP so that their beneficiaries can get the devices they so desperately need," she says.

A Step Ahead Prosthetics has been able to stay open throughout the pandemic, Schaffer says, and made use of its pre-existing program in which patients could mail in their O&P devices for service. "We extended our Remote Access Program to any amputee in need, including those who would
normally go to another facility."

Pre-pandemic, De La Torre O&P had hosted a weekly amputee happy hour, Perrone says. While the event has been dormant during the pandemic, Moss and Perrone agree about restarting the happy hour soon on a monthly basis. "We knew it was necessary to stay socially connected and engaged, and this was a nice way to make it happen over a Zoom meeting on a Friday afternoon," Perrone says.

Bionic P&O conducted three events during the pandemic to collect food for donation to a local organization and a food bank, Saxena says. In addition, nearly 40 people gave blood during Bionic's blood drive for the American Red Cross, she says, with another in November. Bionic P&O has also made a monetary donation to Meals on Wheels Northwest Indiana during COVID-19. "The primary goal of humanitarian assistance is to alleviate the suffering to crisis-affected individuals," Saxena says. "Our assistance provides some relief to other nonprofit organizations in the local community and we know it reaches the people in need directly."

Keeping a Community Connection

When A Step Ahead Prosthetics was in its infancy, it organized and sponsored large local events such as amputee race events, camps, and support groups, Schaffer says. "As the company has grown and expanded around the world, we have expanded our goals," he says.

Internationally, the company has collaborated with Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces to treat their veterans, sponsored children who have lost limbs as the result of the earthquakes in Haiti, and provided treatment to amputees in Guatemala, Ecuador, and other countries, Schaffer says. "As the internet brings us closer to amputees from all parts of the globe and allows us to support them by sharing our knowledge and expertise, our community has transcended local."

While COVID-19 has brought about a number of monumental and often disheartening challenges and changes to many in 2020, it has also brought positive change.

"We have learned how to provide remote services to our patients, [and] reduced the time required for a two-day orientation to one day by utilizing technology," Saxena says. "Amid all the challenges COVID has brought we have learned that change is inevitable, and we chose to grow and prosper as a team with its patient-centered approach."

Betta Ferrendelli can be contacted at betta@opedge.com.