The Magic Foot of Hondo Colwick

The first thing Hondo Colwick remembers about his surgery is the line of metal utensils on a sterile blue sheet. From birth, he had a fatty flap of skin where there should have been a foot. After he turned 3, surgeons sliced off two toes that protruded from the flap’s side. The toes had kept Hondo from easily placing his leg into the below-the-knee prosthesis he’d worn since he was ten months old. They also marked what could have been, if his mother had not used a defective contraceptive called the Dalkon Shield. It stole from the baby it was meant to prevent.

Thirty-seven years after the surgery, Hondo runs his hands over the plaster mold of another man’s stump. He is an artificial limb maker at the New England Orthotic and Prosthetic Systems (NEOPS) fabrication center in Branford, Connecticut. Today’s project, a snow-white thigh, sticks out from the edge of the table like a precarious Popsicle. A vise grip holds it parallel to the floor, and a metal rod runs from plaster groin to plaster knee—right where the bone would be.

The plaster molds that populate the center are stand-ins for absentee clients. The UPS truck delivers casts from doctors’ offices around New England every morning. Just as dentists stick putty on teenagers’ teeth, physicians wrap plaster gauze around patients’ shortened limbs. When the hardened forms arrive at the fabrication center, the prosthetic technicians line them up. Hondo’s coworkers fill the casts, and voilà: in fifteen minutes, there’s a statuesque copy of the patient’s leg.

Ripped casts, mottled plastic, and yesterday’s lunch fill blue Rubbermaid Brute trash containers at NEOPS. Dozens of plaster half-limbs are shoved under the table beside the industrial oven. Hondo uses them to make cup-shaped sockets to fit around each amputee’s stump. The sockets attach to metal pylons, which connect to a carbon-fiber skeleton inside a plastic foot. They lean against the fabrication center’s worktables, like strange flowers blooming on hollow stems. Five plastic toes and five plastic toenails make the foot at the end almost pretty, while the black carbon fiber wedge hidden inside makes it functional. This doll-like end absorbs the shock, the thump, of foot striking ground. It gives the amputee a natural spring in his step.

Hondo is a ruddy-faced man with a sense of humor and a collection of T-shirts in sometimes-poor taste; one from Bass Pro Shops reads: “I Like ’Em With Long Legs and A Big Rack!” alongside a deer silhouette. But when he is at work, nothing can disturb him; he answers questions with a few cheery but terse replies, sometimes little more than, “Yup.” Like the surgeons looking for his small toes, he inspects the mold to find the hills that stick out and the valleys that go too deep. He looks for the smooth dip right under the patella, the small protrusion of the tibia, and the stretch of muscle that bears pressure on the back of the calf. He understands, from lumbering around on his own prosthesis, that if the surface does not feel smooth under his palm, a dull ache will settle into the patient’s leg by the middle of the day.

Hondo is one of only two men on the ten-person staff with a prosthesis; the other works at the stitching station. The men blare the radio while working, and Hondo launches into a high-pitched rendition of the song. “Take a look at my girlfriend, yeah, yeah,” he sings.

“We’re looking at a big, big lady!” a co-worker later yells as he pulls out an oversized plaster mold.

“Where’s my girl?”

“Was she nice?” Hondo asks cheerily.

“Oh, she’s adorable,” the man replies, returning to work.

This banter is part of an environment where men break off chunks of an old man’s artificial hamstring while singing along to Top-Forty hits. Though Hondo’s entirely respectful of the clients, these jokes have the casualness of a bunch of guys in a workplace (the only woman works in the office, away from the floor). On a Monday morning, Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” plays like an ironic anthem: “Don’t wanna see no blood, don’t be a macho man / You wanna be tough, better do what you can.”

No other man in the world has a prosthetic like Hondo Colwick’s. For one thing, his socket extends all the way from knee to ankle to accommodate his extra-long limb. Perhaps more notably, blue fabric with characters from the Mickey Mouse Club House is laminated into the surface of his prosthesis. It’s a full Disney panorama, from cargo shorts to running shoes.

“People make fun of the Mickey leg,” Hondo says with a grin. They also made fun of his previous choices, Nemo and Taz, but he doesn’t give a damn. He tells people his wife helped him pick the decoration. She was a student at Hondo’s former workplace, Newington Children’s Hospital, and they were married at the Disney World wedding pavilion several years later. He tells kids, though, that it’s his “Magic Foot.”

Hondo’s name comes from a six-foot-five basketball superstar who used to play for the Celtics. Hondo’s parents stopped calling him Andrew—his legal name—when he was 2 years old. A sporty nickname seemed more fitting for this wild, rambunctious boy, though Hondo does not exactly resemble the Celtic’s John “Hondo” Havlicek. “He’d literally go from one end of the court to the other,” Hondo says of his Celtics namesake, “and I guess I was a little terror.”

His mother believes the Dalkon Shield, an intra-uterine device that led to thousands of lawsuits in the nineteen-seventies, caused Hondo’s congenital limb defect. But she has no proof, only numbers. After the FDA pulled the product from the shelves, women who filed for damages won nearly $2.5 billion. They spoke in courts about inflammatory pelvic infections, septic abortions, and a few cases of death. One lost foot was not out of the question.

Prostheses became symbols of masculinity lost and found.

Hondo tells me about his time as a point guard on the basketball court, flank on the soccer field, pitcher and first baseman on the baseball diamond. He wasn’t worried about what would happen if he ran around, and it showed: between the ages of 1 and 13, Hondo broke many prosthetic legs. At age 6, he snapped his ankle in two at his parents’ beach cottage in Old Lyme, Connecticut. His father accidentally glued his foot on backwards, and they had to drive all the way back to the hospital to have the technicians put it back together.

Hondo doesn’t have all that much to say about his leg, because as far as he’s concerned, he’s just a “normal family guy”—the kind who goes home to a small house with a wife and a 3-year-old kid, who tunes in to FOX or The Walking Dead, and who goes motor boating in his 22-foot Sea Ray on weekends. He likes the boat for the freedom, and the saltwater, and the feeling of being out on the ocean. But he adds that maneuvering with rudimentary prosthetic technology when he was a child was not easy.

His early prostheses teetered on a foam foot and included an adjustable socket bound by Velcro straps. “People thought I was always limited,” he says. But then they’d see him play.

His older siblings treated him gently (not just because he was the youngest), and they stood up for him if any other kids turned mean. But Hondo says they didn’t have much work to do: “I always stood up for myself. I never got bullied or anything.” Now, his sister works for Hallmark and his brother works for an insurance company—the ultimate disaster response team.

Hondo got into the prosthetics business because, after high school, it seemed pragmatic, and he was always good with his hands. Newington Orthotic & Prosthetic Systems, where he was certified as a technician, functioned alongside the children’s hospital where he had gotten his first prosthetic. He stayed on until the company was bought out by Hanger, Inc. “I have a love of helping people get their lives on track,” he says. “It’s just nice to see people walk again.”

Hondo’s lucky, by some standards: the fact that he’s been footless since birth means that his leg muscles aren’t shrinking. Unlike the bodies of many amputees, his is not in a constant state of flux. When his leg irritates him, he makes a few adjustments instead of making a new socket.

But prostheses’ life spans are limited. “This is my old foot,” Hondo says, pulling out a glossy black piece of carbon shaped like a tiny children’s slide. Though he now does lay-ups only when he’s visiting his nephews in Southington, Connecticut, he strains his prosthesis by working hard each day. “When carbon snaps, it makes a pop—a real, loud pop,” he says, looking at the old Freedom Innovations foot that he stores at the workshop. “Seven years on it, and it finally broke.”

Mass-produced feet, mass-produced knees, and mass-produced joints provide mobility to over 1.6 million U.S. amputees. Fewer than two thousand are veterans who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. The majority are elderly individuals who have lost circulation and often end up in the hospital for vascular diseases. People in traumatic accidents are a close second.

More than two hundred American artificial limb manufacturers were at the ready when the first shots of World War I were fired. The mom-and-pop operations that once shipped arms and legs across the country have since closed. Big players like New England Orthotic and Prosthetics Systems—the second-largest O&P company in the country—have taken over the supply chain.

Mac Hanger, a physician who comes to the fabrication center to adjust patients’ molds, is the great-grandson of the Civil War’s first amputee. His great-grandfather started Hanger, Inc., NEOPS’s biggest competitor, after a cannonball tore off his leg at the Battle of Philippi. Surgeons at that time wiped their knives on aprons in preparation for the next man, and chloroform didn’t always dampen the pain. But you could make a sturdy enough leg out of barrel wood, and the young man did just that. He then made his money off of the war’s thirty-five thousand amputees. For an above-the-knee prosthesis, the going rate at the time was two hundred dollars.

Ripped casts, mottled plastic, and yesterday’s lunch fill blue Rubbermaid Brute trash containers. Dozens of plaster half-limbs are shoved under the table beside the industrial oven.

Brand-name legs became part of American business. The Selpho Leg, which was originally made with catgut tendons, arrived from London in 1839. The E-Z- Leg, or Liberty Leg, became all the rage in the summer of 1918. Woodrow Wilson’s National Defense Act funded the creation of an Artificial Limb Laboratory to account for the four thousand amputees that stumbled out of World War I. White willow wood, which had been dried over years, was once the most popular option (until too many maimed men stayed alive for the trees to keep pace).

After World War II, the veterans who spurred many of the advances of the industry were the same guys who appeared in instructional manuals with their hands on their hips and their pants rolled up, or in army archives with a lit cigarette. In Artificial Parts, Practical Lives, communications professor David Serlin argues that the U.S. media used amputees to glamorize postwar patriotism and combat the public’s concerns about fragile American families.

Prostheses became symbols of masculinity lost and found. The Philadelphia Inquirer raised more than $50,000 for an army private who lost all his comrades and limbs in a Pacific Ocean plane crash in World War II. Other newspapers featured him posing with Miss America in a GM car specially made for amputees. Academy-Award-winning films like “The Best Years of Our Lives” told the tale of a veteran named Homer with mechanical-hook hands. He married the darling next door by the time the credits rolled.

The attitudes toward people with disabilities have changed rapidly since the nineteen-forties, now that Olympic athletes and sexy models have borrowed the mantle of military men. Cheetah-like feet allow runners to sprint forward, and adjustable ankles let high-heel wearers out on the town. But America’s image of amputees remains inextricably linked to war. For men like Hondo, the awkwardness of the association is hard to escape.

“Thank you for your service,” a man said when Hondo took his daughter to Dunkin’ Donuts for a breakfast sandwich in November. He was not the first; an army veteran had recently spotted Hondo’s leg at Walgreens and congratulated its owner for heroism. Such mistakes happen all the time, and Hondo replies without pause.
“I was born without a foot,” Hondo tells them. He teaches them about the prosthetics businesses, describing his days at a workshop that many never even knew existed. He’s easy-going about it, unwilling to make a fuss. “I wouldn’t know what to do with a real foot.”

The door of the hulking oven opens and a billow of heat tumbles out. Hondo’s gloved hand grasps the melted ProFlex inside the 400° Fahrenheit cave. As Hondo lifts the metal ring around the sheet, the center of the plastic gives in to gravity. It resembles, for a moment, a perfectly transparent bowl suspended in midair.

Muscles cannot push; they can only pull or stop pulling. The muscles that use force to contract are called the “agonists,” whereas the muscles that resist are the “antagonists.” As Hondo stretches the plastic over the plaster mold, he leans forward; the muscles in his back, in his arms, in his legs shift into position. He begins to pull, pull, pull.

When the plastic cools, he covers it with sock-like layers of black carbon mesh and white fiberglass. A vacuum-sucked PVC plastic stretches around the bundle, making it look like cream frosting in a cake-decorating bag. The Kingsley Manufacturing Company’s color options include Caucasian, Dark Caucasian, Light Caucasian, 4A Medium Brown, 7A Dark Brown, Latin, Oriental, and Snow White (which Hondo says they don’t buy). He pours a mixture of paint and epoxy into a cut-off Mountain Dew container at the top of the bag. The finished stumps resemble a cluster of giants’ thumbs on the metal-top table.

But the cosmetic process is far from over. “People don’t want to look at a pylon, you know what I mean?” Hondo says. He wraps a piece of foam around the leg because he wants to make a shape resembling a lifelike calf. The grinder emits an angry squeal every time it makes contact.

A seam of yellow glue along the back of the foam looks like a bad stocking seam, and the edges near the ankle are frayed like the fabric on the end of an old t-shirt. But Hondo inspects the leg meticulously: if he gets the angles of the foam just right, people might not notice that CPI 26 is printed on the bottom of the plastic foot shell, or that the ankle only bends so far.

When Hondo picks up his 3-year-old, Faith, from daycare at the end of the day and brings her home, bits of this leg will come with him. “I’m just constantly washing my hands, and the plaster’s drying my palms up even worse,” he says. Tiny shards of fiberglass turn his hands redder each day. Shreds of carbon slip under the skin. “That stuff’s—ooh—that stuff’s no good either.” He shudders. “That stuff’s so fine that once it gets on you, it itches the crap out of you.”

He’s so busy looking at other people’s legs all day, or doting on his child, that he scarcely pays attention to his own leg. Though he had to order a new foot, he hasn’t bothered to replace the rest of his prosthesis in the past seven years; most people make a change after just three. His wife’s father, a physician in the prosthetics business, will probably fit him for a new leg when the current one breaks.

“It’s like the mechanic driving a crappy car, and the shoe repairman whose kids have holes in their shoes,” he says.

His wife, Sara, grew up understanding artificial body parts. Her uncle lost his leg in a farming-machine accident at age 10 and started a family prosthetics business as a young man. Before she started work at a medical supply company, she learned to make prosthetics at Newington Children’s Hospital. The first practice leg she made was for Hondo, far before she got to know him. First tries are often rough-hewn and chafe the skin, but he gritted his teeth and said, “Oh, it’s great!” when he fit it on.

Hondo doesn’t have all that much to say about his leg, because as far as he’s concerned, he’s just a “normal family guy”—the kind who goes home to a small house with a wife and a three-year-old kid, who tunes in to FOX or The Walking Dead, and who goes motor-boating in his 22-foot Sea Ray on weekends.

“What was happening when daddy got this? Do you remember?” Sara asks Faith, as the child plays with a stuffed dog with floppy brown ears. Hondo’s grandmother gifted him the dog on the day of his first foot surgery.

“No,” Faith says, blond curls falling into her face. She’s got her father’s endless energy and a second foot to propel her. She squirms in her seat and holds Patches in her arms.

“That’s just the way it is,” Sara says.

Hondo watches Faith climb onto the table before she’s escorted to bed. He might one day tell her that, in his surgery room, he slept in a bed next to a Saudi prince’s son. He might laugh when he admits that he got kicked out of the play area for crawling over other kids with his cast. He might mention what it’s like to walk around with the daily assistance of plastic and titanium and carbon. But for now, none of that matters. Faith just knows that not every kid has a father with a Mickey Mouse leg.