When he travels to Zacapa, Guatemala to provide prosthetic limbs and orthotic braces to amputees, Michael Smerka of Marblehead takes his responsibility to heal, repair and transform the world (“tikkun olam”) literally.
A clinical prosthetist who makes and fits artificial limbs for patients who have suffered limb loss, Smerka recently returned from his third trip to Guatemala, as a member of the Range Of Motion Project (ROMP).
“The work is transformative,” the native New Yorker said. “If you do it once, you get addicted.”
ROMP’s mission is to provide used prostheses to those without access to care. While studying for a post-graduate degree in prosthetics at Northwestern University in 2004, Smerka met ROMP’s co-founder Eric Neufeld when they were assigned as lab partners. He remembers Neufeld talking about wanting to do charitable prosthetic work in the developing world.
The two became aware that in the U.S., federal regulations do not allow used prostheses to be resold, and so they would go to waste if the original owner needed refitting or passed away. They began asking families to donate the components and Neufeld decided to send them outside the U.S. to places where there is not access to the care (people trained to fit a prosthesis correctly) or to the artificial limbs.
Neufeld and Dave Krupa cofounded ROMP in 2005, and started a clinic as part of a regional hospital in Zacapa. Over the years, they spent time training local residents to be clinical experts so they can continue to care for people even when the Western clinicians have left.
Pictured from left: Dave Rotter, Marco, Eric Neufeld and Michael Smerka
“That long-term goal is part of the beauty of ROMP,” Smerka said. “We are able to bring them up to speed on current practices, biomechanics and fabrication. We are bringing 21st century technology to a developing country.”
This year, after securing a grant from Grand Challenges Canada, ROMP and University of Victoria engineers collaborated to bring cutting edge 3D printing and scanning capabilities to the Zacapa rehabilitation clinic. Smerka brought the first printer with him on his most recent trip in October, when seven ROMP volunteer clinicians worked on site to fit between 35 and 40 patients with prosthetic feet, legs, hands and arms. The recipients ranged from 8 to 82 years old.
Smerka thinks it is difficult for people in the U.S. to grasp the impact that these limbs have.
“It’s not just a device; it’s life changing for both the amputees and their families,” he said. “What happens is that when somebody becomes an amputee, they become a drain on an impoverished family already in difficult conditions. This helps a child. It helps a father return as a breadwinner to support his family.”
For example, Hilda, a 27-yearold woman Smerka worked with this year, lost her limb in a work-related accident about 18 months ago. She was fit with a first prosthesis, but needed a new one because of anatomical changes to her residual limb. Louisa, a volunteer firefighter, was fitted with an athletic runner’s device donated by the manufacturer Fillauer, enabling her to resume one of her passions.
Candidates for treatment go through a six-month process between the times they first contact the clinic and the time the ROMP team arrives. For follow- up care, or if they missed the opportunity to be treated by ROMP clinicians, they still can be fitted by one of the ROMPtrained local clinicians.
Smerka was one of three Jewish ROMP volunteers on this recent trip. “We didn’t do Shabbos, but we acknowledged it by saying, ‘Shabbat Shalom,’” he said, smiling.
Smerka’s path to his current profession was full of twists, turns and serendipity. After earning a BFA from SUNY Purchase, he followed his artistic passion and tried to make a living creating contemporary fine furniture. Realizing he had to supplement his income, he did commercial custom work, eventually working at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. “That was a really fun job,” he said.
A knee injury and four months of rehabilitation brought him to a crossroad. In addition to his physical limitations, the climate of the furniture making industry was changing, making it harder to earn a living in that field. He wanted a profession that would fit his interests and art background. He had enjoyed the process of physical therapy, but he also wanted to make use of his artistic skills. When he looked into prosthetics, he discovered a good fit.
“It looked like a perfect combination of working with people, being in a rehabilitation medical setting and building things,” he said. Not long after, he began as an unpaid apprentice to see if he wanted to pursue becoming a clinical Prosthetist; he did.
He started in the field in 2001. In 2011, he and his wife, Heather Glick, moved to her native Marblehead, where they live with their four-year-old son and 16-month-old daughter. He now works at A Step Ahead Prosthetics in Burlington. Its founder, Erik Schaffer, organized a prosthetic limb drive for ROMP and regularly fits wounded Israeli soldiers through FIDF (Friends of the Israel Defense Forces).
Smerka plans to develop a ROMP in Boston where people can access services through A Step Ahead. He points to the many under-insured and undocumented people who need this help. Again and again, Smerka circles back to his Jewish roots and to his gratification of fulfilling the mitzvah of tikkun olam. “Having that Jewish lens wherever you are and whatever you do is important to me,” he said.
For more information or to make a donation, go to rompglobal. org.
Pictured at top: Michael Smerka with Hilda in Zacapa, Guatemala