New life for amputees

Virginia Prosthetics is an advocate and innovator

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by Sandra Brown Kelly

Vernard Keeling of Roanoke lost his left leg below the knee when he stepped on a land mine in 1972 during a tour of duty in Vietnam. More than a year passed before his parents could see him. “I didn’t tell my Mama I lost my leg all that time. It works on your mind, and I wondered how she would react,” recalls Keeling. 

One day he awoke from a nap at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., to find his parents at his bedside. His mother was crying and saying, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I told her I wanted to come home walking before she knew,” he says.

Some months later Keeling was on crutches and “kinda depressed” at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salem when Virginia Prosthetics in Roanoke fitted him with his first artificial leg. “I just took off and haven’t stopped since,” says Keeling, now owner of a home repair business.
Over the years, Virginia Prosthetics has made five artificial legs for Keeling. His latest leg comes with a locking suspension and an energy-storing carbon foot. The prosthesis allows Keeling more movement for work — or for basketball at the church gym. “Everything they’ve made me always fit well; I never had any soreness with my stump,” says Keeling. “They call me at home to ask how I am doing.”

‘I like what I do’
J. Douglas Call, the owner of Virginia Prosthetics since 1992, says Keeling’s story illustrates how prosthetics can change someone’s life. That is one reason Call has become a tireless advocate for amputees. “I like what I do,” he says.

In the past 16 years, Call has transformed Virginia Prosthetics from one office and seven employees to a statewide leader in orthotics and prosthetics with 38 workers and offices in five Virginia cities. It also runs regular clinics at another eight sites in Virginia and North Carolina. Since 1992, the company’s revenue has risen 400 percent as its patient base has increased 1,400 percent.

While directing the company’s growth, Call also has maintained its reputation as an industry innovator. Almost since its beginning in 1966, the company has served as a test site for new designs in artificial limbs.

In addition, Call supported a 2008 push in the Virginia General Assembly to get health plans to more fully cover the cost of prosthetics. He chartered buses to bring amputees to Richmond to testify before the legislature.

In recognition of its accomplishments, Virginia Business picked Virginia Prosthetics as its 2008 Virginia Small Business Success Story of the Year. The competition, now in its fourth year, recognizes companies with fewer than 100 employees that have demonstrated remarkable growth, perseverance in the face of adversity, or community and industry leadership. Virginia Prosthetics was selected from a group of four regional finalists and eight semi-finalists. Fifty-five companies submitted entries this year. (Not all previous winners have had continued success. See Follow-ups on page 84.)

Coverage for prosthetics
Virginia Prosthetics gained national attention last year for promoting legislation that would require private health plans to provide coverage for prosthetics comparable to Medicare’s. Medicare pays 80 percent of the cost and allows for regular replacement of artificial limbs. Many health plans have capped or reduced prosthesis coverage as insurers and employers sought to reduce health-care costs.
Call became involved when he learned insurance would pay only $5,000 of the $15,000 cost of an artificial limb for a 5-year-old girl. “The insurer had paid for all of her cancer treatments but wouldn’t buy the prosthetic leg so she could go back to school,” says Call. “An amputation should be classified as a catastrophic type illness, but I have 18-, 20-, and 30- and 40-year-olds that want to work but have to go on disability because the insurance company will not cover the cost of prosthesis.”
In seeking change, Call hired Charlie Coulter, a Roanoke businessman he fitted with an artificial right leg after an accident in 1996. Coulter spent 23 days in 2008 attending hearings in Richmond and working with a lobbying group also hired by Virginia Prosthetics.
They backed a bill mandating prosthesis coverage that made it to the Senate floor before being sent back to its Commerce and Labor Committee at the end of the session. Opponents say that the state mandates result in higher insurance costs and fewer options for employers. Call, however, argues the mandate would cost from $1.25 to $3 per employee per year. Eleven states have passed similar laws.
The passion Call showed in the legislative debate reflects the commitment he has had to prosthetics since high school. That’s when he began working for the company’s founder, the late Fred Murko. Call continued to be a part-time employee while in college. He joined the company full time after graduation in 1985. The following year, Call earned a certificate of prosthetics from Northwestern University. He also became part of Murko’s family, marrying his daughter Martha. They have three sons, Phillip, 15, Harrison, 13, and Davis, 10.

Changes in technology
Over the past 22 years, Call has witnessed a revolution in prosthetics.  “When I got out of prosthetics school, we were still doing wooden legs, and silicon technology was just in,” he says. 
New technology brought carbon composites and epoxy-type resins to the business, which made it possible to build more functional limbs.

Virginia Prosthetics was one of the first facilities to use the OMEGA Tracer System, a computer-aided design technology that creates a picture of a patient’s residual limb. The picture becomes the blueprint for custom prosthetic sockets in fitting an artificial limb. 

Dr. Joseph Moskal, a surgeon with Roanoke Orthopaedic Center in Roanoke County, says the company has been very responsive to patients. “Since it was founded, it has had a wonderful reputation, even coming into the operating room to get measurements to get a patient out of the bed as soon as possible,” he says.

Virginia Prosthetics serves trauma patients, but more than 75 percent of its patients suffer from vascular disease, including diabetes. “We get to help a lot of nice people,” says Call. “Because of the way a prosthetic is designed, we develop a relationship with patients and also develop a lot of friendships.”

Even as head of the company, Call keeps up his skills as a prosthetist. In 2005, he volunteered for three months to work with injured soldiers at Walter Reed. “We got to help, and it allowed us to learn and work with newer materials.”

While the technology changes, Call plans to expand Virginia Prosthetics by purchasing other providers. “From a career standpoint, I’m happy where I’m at; I hope to do another 40 years.”

2008 Virginia Small Business Success Story of the Year
Overall Winner
Southern and Western Virginia finalist
Virginia Prosthetics Inc.

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