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Builder of Hopes
Tom Dunkel
April 17, 1995
Mike Joyce makes high-tech prosthetics that help disabled athletes excel
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April 17, 1995

Builder Of Hopes

Mike Joyce makes high-tech prosthetics that help disabled athletes excel

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Prosthetist Mike Joyce didn't exactly volunteer to be part of the disabled-sports movement. It's more like he was drafted. Joyce's induction came in the summer of 1987 when a friend invited him along to watch the New York State Games for the Physically Challenged in Hempstead, N.Y.

"To tell you the truth," says Joyce, "my first experience with disabled athletes was watching a guy run and his [artificial] leg broke in half, right in front of me."

Joyce rushed the shattered prosthesis to a local hospital and repaired it with a fiberglass wrap. Later that day, with his prosthesis back in place, sprinter Todd Schaffhauser won the 100-meter event. The following summer at the Paralympic Games in Seoul, Schaffhauser ran 100 meters in 15.77 seconds, then a world record for single-leg above-the-knee amputees.

Helping Schaffhauser return to competition so quickly inspired Joyce to take his tool bag in hand and attend a few more track meets. He became hooked. By 1992 his work had become so widely respected that he was the sole prosthetist chosen to accompany the U.S. team to Barcelona for the quadrennial Paralympic Games, disabled sports' answer to the Olympics.

Joyce, 36, has carved a niche for himself as the prosthetist who helps physically challenged people push the sports-participation envelope. He is president of his own small company, Advanced Prosthetics and Orthotics Inc., which fashions and fits artificial limbs. Joyce, who started the company in 1987, and 12 employees occupy the basement of a nondescript redbrick office building a few miles from Shea Stadium in the community of White-stone in Queens, N.Y. His customers have included surfers, skiers, cyclists, martial artists, hockey players, and elite and recreational jocks of every stripe. Joyce offers them a new lease on athletic life. Ask Leandro Stillitano.

Twelve years ago Stillitano, then 26, worked in international sales in Manhattan and played semipro soccer in New Jersey. One night during a business trip to Sandersville, Ga., he fell asleep at the wheel of his rental car and drove off a mountain road. The crash changed Stillitano's life dramatically. His left leg was mangled so badly that it had to be amputated below the knee, and his right ear was sheared off. Over the next four years Stillitano underwent surgery 27 times. He also lapsed into four years of depression and idleness.

"I didn't even have a [prosthetic] leg for a year," says Stillitano, a former All-Ivy League soccer star at Columbia University. He finally got an artificial leg in 1984, and gradually his spirits lifted. One day in 1988 Stillitano told his prosthetist that he felt like playing soccer again. "He told me, 'If you want to do more, you've got to go see Mike Joyce,' " says Stillitano.

How times change. Far from their lingering image as makers of peg legs, prosthetists have become nearly as indispensable to an amputee's recovery as a good doctor or physical therapist. "Ten years ago we were looked upon as a bunch of carpenters," Joyce wryly observes. These days patients are more apt to regard Joyce as a high-tech miracle worker. Modern prosthetics are made of lightweight titanium and carbon fiber instead of the clunky wood and steel used just 10 years ago, and the price of a state-of-the-art artificial limb can run as high as $20,000. In addition, innovations such as springy, energy-storing feet have opened amazing new avenues of mobility for the approximately three million leg amputees in the U.S.

Consider Sgt. Dana Bowman of the Golden Knights, the Army's team of parachute jumpers based at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. In February 1994 Bowman collided in midair with another Golden Knight during a free-fall practice jump. In the 300-mph impact Bowman's partner, José Aguillon, was killed, and both of Bowman's legs were severed, the right one above the knee, the left just below it.

Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where Bowman was sent to convalesce, helps amputee servicemen learn to walk without a noticeable limp. But Bowman had no intention of leaving active duty. He heard about Joyce's work from an Army friend, and he gained permission to go outside the normal rehab loop to be fitted for strong but lightweight legs and feet. In less than six months he was again riding his motorcycle, water-skiing, jogging and parachuting with the Golden Knights. Last November he became the first double amputee ever allowed to reenlist in the military.

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