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Becoming Whole Again at North Shore Animal League America

In the Western Caribbean Sea sit three tiny islands, which compromise the British territory better known as the Cayman Islands. Because of this island country’s tropical weather and majestic beaches, it’s best known for being the perfect vacation spot for travelers from around the globe. It’s not often we relate adoptable shelter animals with a place that’s motto is "He hath founded it upon the seas,” but believe it or not, the Cayman Islands is home to several animal welfare and rescue organizations.

At North Shore Animal League America we take our mission of “Rescue, Nurture, Adopt” very seriously. So, when another rescue organization reaches out to inquire about taking in a potential shelter pet, we always consider the possibility. Even if the animal would be traveling 1,500 miles across international waters like in the case of Blaze, a young adult Mutt-i-gree®  with a disability. See, Blaze arrived at the Animal League after having recovered from an amputation of his left-front leg by doctors in the Cayman Islands. Vice President & Chief of Veterinary Staff at the Animal League, Dr. Mark Verdino said for reasons unbeknownst to him, the amputation was done at the carpus (wrist). Since Blaze continued to use the remaining part of the leg to get around as if it was still fully intact, it was causing the bottom of the limb to scrape along the ground and become bruised and tattered. Therefore, he decided that this international rescue would be the perfect candidate for a prosthetic leg, and he and a select group of people in the Animal League Medical Center would be the ones to develop and build it.

“We deemed him a good fit because he was still using the leg, but he also has the right kind of demeanor for it,” said Dr. Verdino. “He’s a very happy, easy going little dog, and seemed very amenable to the entire process. If he was resistant to it or was growling at us every time we touched his leg we certainly wouldn’t have been able to attempt something like this.”

After coming to the conclusion that Blaze was the perfect fit for this prosthetic, which would be the first-of-its-kind to be built at the Animal League, Dr. Verdino immediately sought out the best possible candidate to assist on the project. This brought him straight to Assistant Veterinary Technician, Howard Schwartz, who also happens to be a retired Industrial Designer. Howard came to the Animal League more than four years ago as a volunteer when his two boys graduated high school. His passion for animals and the desire to learn as much as he could about the medical side of the animal rescue process led the Port Washington resident to join the staff on a part-time basis as an Assistant Veterinary Technician. He took that a step further when he enrolled in classes to officially become a Vet Tech, and he is currently three months away from earning his degree. So, when Dr. Verdino approached him to ask for his help, Howard said he didn’t have to think twice.

“When Dr. Verdino came to me with this project, of course I was very excited and pleased to have the opportunity to put my Industrial Design background to use,” he said. “Then he introduced me to the dog, showed me the very quick prototype that he had built as a temporary solution. I could immediately see that it worked and the dog was comfortable using it, but it needed to be something more permanent. So, from there I started with extensive research on various animal and human prosthetics, and also tried to learn as much as I could about the best materials to use for such a device. I wanted to make sure whatever we created was going to be the perfect fit for the dog.”

Howard said the first step was taking a mold of the dog’s leg in order to make a plaster foot, so he could use it as a model throughout the design process. His first stop was The Lewyt Ark to have jack-of-all-trades and Medical Support Service Liaison here at the Animal League, Chris Miller, assist with taking precise measurements of Blaze’s legs. Howard said he needed to do this in order to replicate specific angles, curvatures and movements in order to match the other leg and create balance. Next, with the assistance of Dr. Verdino and Animal League Surgery Manager, Daryl Sandoval, he made the fiberglass mold, which allowed him to pour a positive plaster foot. At that point, he had everything he needed to officially start designing each unique portion of his prosthetic masterpiece.

The next step after creating the plaster foot was creating the foam liner and the plastic boot that would secure the foot inside the device. He compared this part of his design to that of a ski boot, which tightly molds around the lower half of the leg and the foot, and is secured with two adjustable straps. Then it was on to the metal foot portion of the prosthetic, which Howard needed to bend into the perfect shape. This piece is designed to simulate the movements of a real leg, providing similar bend and support. Lastly, he installed a rubber shoe tread that he picked up from a local shoe repair shop to the curved bottom portion of the metal piece. He then trimmed it to fit evenly along the bottom of the metal piece, which provided the same grip and cushion that the sole of a sneaker would.

“It was really a complete team effort from top to bottom,” said Howard. “There’s no template when creating something like this, it’s all custom. Dr. Verdino, myself, Chris (Miller), Daryl (Sandoval), Dr. Tejada, we all worked together to create a piece that would give this dog a real shot at living a normal life.”

Howard explained that it took about three weeks from the initial design creation to the time that the first prototype was ready to be tested on Blaze. It took another two weeks of constantly making upgrades and modifications before he and Dr. Verdino were satisfied with their creation. Once the design was perfected, it was apparent that this prosthetic was almost a new lease on life for Blaze from the second it was placed onto his leg. The handsome, tan-colored pooch was off to the races, strutting around outside of the Animal League Medical Center like nothing ever happened to his front paw. Dr. Verdino said Blaze will still have to undergo several weeks of physical therapy in order to strengthen his surgically altered front leg to ensure it can properly function in the prosthetic. After he completes therapy, Blaze’s mobility should improve dramatically, enabling the young dog to go on long walks and even run around the park.

“My goal has always been to improve the scope of what we can perform here at the Animal League, so we can help more animals,” said Dr. Verdino. “The more we can do in house, whether it’s orthopedic surgery, building prosthetics, etc., the more animals we can help and the more lives we can save.”

Howard echoed Dr. Verdino’s sentiment.

“I think this is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever worked on,” he said. “It’s extremely rewarding to see how my designs and my work can have such a positive effect on an animal. When I first starting working with medical equipment I think it was that thrill of doing something impactful that made me realize how much I enjoy working in this environment.”

This wasn’t the first time Howard assisted Dr. Verdino on a special in-house project. He helped design and build a special mobile cart for a dog who didn’t have use of its hind legs, so working on side projects that positively effects the life of an animal in need is something they’ve grown accustom to doing together at this point. Once again, the well-respected Chief of Veterinary Staff and the former Industrial Designer turned Vet Tech nailed it.

If Blaze could talk you could bet he’d be singing their praises. For now lots of wet kisses from this appreciative Caymanian will have to suffice.

Written by James Fitzpatrick, Staff Writer