If there’s one thing Joseph Chorba feels he has to remind people about, it’s to plug in their legs before they go to bed.
It’s not that people don’t know to do that, it’s just that he likes to remind them that if they don’t want their legs to not run out of juice, people need to keep them charged. Like their phones.
Chorba himself has a pretty sweet ride that he always remembers to keep charged up. Doctors were able to save his knee, but not the rest of the leg, and the ankle joint on his prosthetic limb is full of microprocessor magic that allows him to move more or less as if he’d never lost a thing.
And for the record, Chorba’s grandson thinks the limb is pretty cool, thank you very much. Not long ago, at the shore, the boy called his grandfather’s leg a robot, and he meant it with all the awe a kid can muster for all things science fiction.
As it turns out, this reaction is surprisingly common these days. Younger people in particular, Chorba says, tend to think that having a robotic limb is pretty badass. But that acceptance doesn’t come right away. No one loses a limb, or part of one, and thinks it’s awesome. There’s a massive psychological adjustment that has to happen first.
That’s one of the reasons that Chorba, who with his wife, Tracey, owns TLC Orthotics and Prosthetics (163 Route 130 North in Bordentown), have started a support group for amputees so soon after starting their business. Chorba knows it takes a while to get used to the idea of missing a piece of yourself, despite how futuristic prosthetic limbs are these days. And he knows that the biggest mental hurdle usually has to do with isolation, so he wanted to provide a place for those in the pre-acceptance phase to find support and camaraderie.
The support group, which Chorba says is just getting off the ground, has its roots in an accident back in 1969. Chorba was 10 years old then. He stepped into the street from behind a parked car and was hit by a moving one.
“To this day, I don’t remember getting hit by the car at all,” he says.
That’s probably because he spent the ensuing four days in a coma. Over his six-week stay in the hospital, doctors removed his spleen. Saving the leg, which was badly damaged in the accident was the doctors’ “second priority” to saving his life, he says.
But despite numerous fractures and broken blood vessels below his knee, Chorba did manage to keep his leg for another nine years. The problem was that his leg had contracted a bone infection known as osteomyelitis. Ironically, the treatment ended up promoting the spread of the infection that, by age 19, crept close to his knee.
The spread, he says, stemmed from the skin grafts the doctors would periodically do to help fight the osteomyelitis. In 1969, doctors didn’t know that skin graphs were probably the worst treatment they could have given Chorba. The grafts, he says, promoted ulcers that allowed the infection to claim ever more of his leg.
Which, by the way, the doctors thought was actually a side-effect of diabetes, which he doesn’t have.
When his leg came off, Chorba says he went through the same emotions he sees in so many amputee patients—the questions of whether he would ever walk again, and whether anyone would love him now. To be sure, asking those questions in the late 1970s, when artificial limbs were about as advanced as tree limbs, was a little more blunt than today. Not that it’s easy to face the loss of a limb now. It’s just that the technology for artificial limbs today is as far ahead of where it was in the late ’70s as a cell phone is compared to an old rotary dial phone.
Still, Chorba says, he was quite active with his new leg. Or, better stated, new legs. Every five years or so people need to replace their artificial limbs because the fit tends to wear out, he says.
By the middle of the ’80s, Chorba went to work for the Trenton doctor who’d fitted him for his first leg. He spent the next 30-odd years making limbs for other clients until deciding last June to strike out on his own.
Chorba makes time to see customers in their homes— something he says a lot of orthotists don’t do these days.
The impetus behind starting TLC, Chorba says, was that he got tired of the dehumanized aspect of getting fitted for artificial limbs. For one thing, most doctors who make or prescribe them are not amputees, and while empathy can be great, he says, the fact that he’s a patient too gives him a distinct advantage in getting through to patients he sees.
To be clear, Chorba is not a doctor. He’s a certified prosthetist and a certified orthotist—certification he needs to keep up with annually in order to keep working in the field. But, he says, he understands what customers are going through and what they need to know in a way that only another amputee patient can convey.
Consider, for example, one client who was an amputee about five years before he walked into TLC. The patient was in a lot of pain and his leg always felt cold. When Chorba got a look at the X-rays, he saw that the man had enough screws bolted into him to build a wall.
“The metal was why he felt cold,” Chorba says.
Almost sounds like an obvious answer, doesn’t it? But the man’s doctors never saw it. Chorba did because to him it’s not academic. He helped fit the guy with a better socket and the pain and constant cold feeling went away.
The thing is, Chorba says, being an amputee is as much about the mind as it is the body. Maybe more so. The body is pretty good at healing itself and adapting to new challenges. The mind, though, that can be tricky.
“Like a lot of people, I wanted to crawl into a hole,” he says of when he first lost his leg. “My buddies dragged me out and said, ‘You’re not staying home.’”
Chorba says family and friends are the most important part of recovery and acceptance. He was fortunate to have support that helped him stay active enough in the ’80s to play softball in a league, despite the “primitive leg” he ran on.
Twenty-five years ago he met Tracey, who at the time was a part-time bartender where he used to play pool a lot. Meeting her ended, for good, any concerns he might still have had that no one would love him because of the leg. The couple live quite happily together in Fieldsboro.
Though the support group he started hasn’t really gotten off the ground yet, Chorba is sure it will. He says he wants to be there for people who don’t have the good fortune of the kind of support network he had back in the day.
He says it’s the same principle that guides how he does business. Too many companies that make or fit limbs are just in it for the money.
“We wanted to put patient care back into doing this,” he says.
Chorba says his business is making “plenty of money,” despite his not being in it for profit. Beyond the business, he makes it a point to go see patients in their homes—something a lot of orthotists don’t do these days. But, he says, he doesn’t want to make his clients who have mobility and transportation issues (especially older patients) feel like they need to trek to Bordentown to get to his office.
One thing he can tell his clients, whether they come to him or vice versa, is that today’s computer-chipped limbs are not the clunky sticks they used to be. Those microprocessors program themselves to fit the gait and stride of the person wearing the prosthetic, because no two people can really wear the same limb.
That said, Chorba did go out for Halloween as a peg-leg pirate a few years ago because, well, that’s just funny. But he won’t be doing it twice, because that old-school cartoon stump hurt to walk on.
One thing in Chorba’s favor when it comes to trying to get through to people wondering how life with a prosthetic limb will turn out—and he does make all kinds of prosthetics, from feet and legs to arms—is that people tend to think like his grandson about the robot limbs.
“I think there’s more acceptance nowadays,” he says. “There are more amputees because of diabetes and war in the Middle East.”
Still, he says, to do well on a prosthetic demands one thing he can’t give patients—will.
“Some people are so down and out,” he says. “You have to want to walk again.”
Patients with will, though, abound. Some are young like he was when he lost his leg; some are pretty up there in years. One of his patients is 93, in fact. And that man’s wife was worried that he was slowing down because of the prosthetic.
Chorba laughs. “He’s slowing down because he’s 93.”
If there’s a piece of advice he would give to new amputees, it’s that as technology advances, there’s less distinction between living a life with natural limbs and living one with a prosthetic than most might think. His patients wear limbs that allow them to run, to workout, to dance, to play sports, and to look pretty good while doing it, if he does say so himself.
In other words, so much of how someone with a prosthetic limb lives is all in the head.
“You just can’t be so vain,” he says. “You can’t worry about what other people will think.”