May 1, 2003
Sports enthusiasts troll incessantly for the latest competitive edge. So Ron C. Harding, a golfer, skier and runner, immediately understood the curiosity of a fellow skier in Aspen last month.
"He wanted to compare feet to make sure he had the best," said Harding of Riverside, an above-the-knee double amputee who has three sets of legs for varying athletic and cosmetic needs.
"It turns out Shahr made his leg," Harding said. "I told him Shahr made mine, too."
The master legmaker common to both athletes is Shahr Lopatin, 51, who found his career calling visiting a friend in the amputee ward of an Israeli army hospital during the Six-Day War in 1967.
"I have a spot for people who lost limbs for their country," said Lopatin, who trained in Israel at the elbow of a mentor prosthetist before immigrating in 1976. Though he lacks a degree and certification, common in the industry, Lopatin has spent nearly 20 years as head of prosthetics at Fullerton's Sunny Hills Orthopedic Services Inc.
His penchant for veteran advocacy and self-promotion led Lopatin in March to propose that Israel's Ministry of Defense contract with Sunny Hills to make prosthetics for disabled veterans. Although the arrangement has yet to be formalized, Lopatin said the ministry has agreed to a preliminary test case. Ron, a soldier missing both legs and an arm, is scheduled to arrive with his family in June, he said.
Some Israel Defense Forces veterans missing two limbs currently are sent to Europe or the United States for medical treatment, a ministry official in Jerusalem said.
The military is dissatisfied with the current arrangement, because of the time required and its cost, Lopatin said. "The cost here is 10 times more than in Israel," he said, adding that two hip-to-toe artificial legs alone can cost $100,000. Lopatin promised more efficient, lower-cost service.
Noga Ben-Menahem, assistant to the director of medical services in orthopedic rehabilitation for the Defense Ministry, did not respond to an e-mail query about the proposed contract. Neither did a ministry spokesman confirm the arrangement.
Repairing fallen heroes isn't new to Lopatin. Of 200 clients seen annually, just 10 percent have lost limbs due to unusual events, such as war. Most undergo surgical amputation after losing function from diabetes or vascular disease, a scenario increasing in frequency as the population ages.
Lopatin said luck, rather than a sense of spiritual direction, steered him to a job with unique benefits, such as helping reclaim a full life for Semsudin Susic.
A former pro soccer player, Susic was a paramilitary fighter whose legs were shattered by a grenade during the defense of Tuzla, Bosnia, in 1992. Local Bosnian expatriates arranged for Susic's passage and pro bono medical work in 1997.
"It was the lowest point of my life," said Susic, who saw his future dwindling, tied to a wheelchair and with poor-fitting wooden legs. Now 33, he works full time to support a family and is an engineering student at California State University Fullerton.
Lopatin enlists Susic as a role model on bedside visits to other veterans. They are an unlikely pair with thick accents: one is short, outspoken and Jewish; the other, a reserved 6-foot-3 Muslim, who favors burritos.
In supervising Sunny Hills' seven certified prosthetists, Lopatin is attentive to an amputee's preferences, such as using components that permit swimming or wearing high-heels. Cost-conscious medical insurers often resist such customization and are reluctant to adopt new design advances.
Such cost pressures could grow worse, because the federal government is considering a new Medicare approach, requiring competitive bidding for prosthetics, said Lance Hoxie, director of a professional board in Alexandria, Va., that certifies the nation's 3,600 prosthetists.
Lopatin, of course, disagrees. "There's nothing too good for vets," he said.
That accounts for a career shift from prosthetist to proselytizer. Last month, Lopatin took a new marketing job for Freedom Innovations Inc., a start-up footmaker in Corona. He is impressed by the performance of their novel design that withstands high activity and closely simulates natural motion.
"He sticks up for clients," said Randy P. McFarland, Sunny Hills' owner and president, noting that Lopatin's stance is aligned with goals for better functionality set by the U.S. Veterans Administration. Lopatin will continue as a Sunny Hills consultant.
Lopatin is a child of Holocaust survivors, whose family resides in Yorba Linda. A self-described mechanic, he is gratified by restoring mobility to lives unnecessarily restricted.
Psychology is his best tool, because every client is grieving for a past life, Lopatin said. Many sink into depression.
"His greatest asset is his positive attitude; he won't let you quit on yourself," said James Bryan, a Redondo Beach eye doctor and basketball player who lost a leg to infection after joint-replacement surgery.
Like a proud parent, Lopatin lives for the moment a wheelchair-bound client takes a first step on a new leg. "Their faces are unbelievable," he said. "It's like they got struck by lightning."
Sunny Hills' annual golf clinic for the physically challenged will be held May 2 at the Fullerton Golf Course. For information, call (714) 738-4769.