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Center for Limb Differences celebrates 70th anniversary

Ella Gillies Center for Limb DifferencesIn addition to celebrating the 125th anniversary of Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital this year, its Center for Limb Differences is marking its 70th year of caring for young patients with congenital and acquired limb differences. When it was established in 1946, the center – then known as the Juvenile Amputee Training Program – was the first in the nation to focus exclusively on helping infants, children and teenagers become as independent as possible.

By the early 1950s, the program became known as the Area Child Amputee Center and provided treatment and consultation to children from across the country. In 2000, the name was changed to the Center for Limb Differences to encompass the spectrum of diagnoses seen.

“We are extremely proud of the work our Center for Limb Differences has done over the past 70 years,” said Mary Free Bed Guild President Carol Springer. “Our incredible team continues to provide our patients with limb deficiencies the opportunity to gain or regain their independence through innovation, rehabilitation and an unbridled passion to restore hope and freedom to everyone who walks through our doors.”

Teenager Ella Gillies has been a patient since she was a baby. Born without tibias, Ella became a double amputee when she was just 6 months old and has prosthetic legs.

“I really am normal and anybody else like me is normal,” Ella said. “There’s not an actual good definition for what normal is, because everybody is different in their own way.”

Mary Free Bed’s Center for Limb Differences was founded by physicians Charles Frantz and George Aiken, world-recognized experts in the field of pediatric limb differences. They pioneered the concept of multidisciplinary treatment, combining orthopedic and prosthetic care. They subsequently included therapeutic and psychosocial disciplines. The Grand Rapids program permanently changed the perception of children with amputations and the medical treatment they received.

Today, the team is led by pediatric orthopedic surgeons Dr. Michael Forness and Dr. Lisa Maskill, who specialize in these problems. Pediatric specialists also include a physical therapist, an occupational therapist, prosthetists, orthotists, nurses, social workers, recreational therapists, psychologists and physiatrists.

“I consider it an honor to work here,” said Dr. Forness. “We’re addressing all components of the patient – the psychological, social and physical aspects. We’re trying to help them succeed in life. We’re working together with the family – the family is part of the team, as far as I’m concerned – and it’s just a very rewarding experience.”

Treatment plans are crafted to meet the unique needs of each patient, including young people with a broad range of congenital amputations and syndromes, brachial plexus problems, acquired amputations and those undergoing frame treatment for limb lengthening or angular correction and limb salvage. The center also manages prosthetic fitting and orthotic recommendations and integration into school, recreation and transitions into adulthood.

The center, a founding member of the national Association of Children’s Prosthetic-Orthotic Clinics, is housed in a family friendly environment at Mary Free Bed.

“I think it’s fabulous,” said Brande Gillies, Ella’s mother. “I hope it’s around forever, because there are definitely a lot of kids and parents who that need that kind of support. They’re doing a really good thing here.”

Learn more about Ella’s story and the Center for Limb Differences in this video:

The anniversary also has attracted media coverage. Dr. Maskill and Kellie Hetler, whose daughter, Gabriella, was born with congenital skeletal dysplasia, both were interviewed for a segment on WOOD-TV’s “EightWest” and for an MLive story.

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