With the proliferation of body parts scattered throughout the Box Hill Corporate Center office space, an unknowing visitor might think he or she stumbled into a Hollywood special effects studio. But the work company president Jonas Seeberg and his staff at Real Life Prosthetics do makes a very real difference to clients ranging from Paralympic gold medalist Jessica Long to indigent natives in Colombia, South America.
Real Life Prosthetics, a privately-owned company with offices in Abingdon, Chestertown and Newark, Del., provides a full range of services from hand-painted silicone skin coverings to prosthetic and orthotic services, literally changing lives every day with its revolutionary offerings.
A Long and Winding Road
Seeberg swam at the University of Maryland College Park, where he met his wife, Harford County native Karen Eisman. After program budget cuts jeopardized his scholarship, Seeberg transferred to Florida International University (FIU), receiving a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1993. It was at FIU – one of only six schools in the country that offered a program in orthotics and prosthetics (O&P) – that Seeberg was introduced to his future career.
After graduation, Seeberg moved back to Maryland and married his college sweetheart. Although he had planned to enter FIU’s O&P program, the program folded, and Seeberg turned his attention to the O&P program at California State University Dominguez Hills in Los Angeles. One of 12 finalists accepted from more than 250 applicants, he received a baccalaureate degree in O&P from the school in 1996, graduating third in his class.
Seeberg interned at some of the nation’s leading institutions and completed a two-year residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Kernan Hospital and Sinai Hospital. In 2000, Seeberg finally realized his dream of becoming a certified prosthetist and orthotist, and within the year launched Real Life Prosthetics, opening the company’s current Harford County office in early 2001.
A “Hybrid Profession”
Of his chosen profession, Seeberg says, “It’s truly a hybrid profession – part science, part art. We live in a clinical world where we work with patients, doctors and physical therapists but also in the technical world of computers and manufacturing.”
True to his words, the Box Hill offices are a mix of multi-purpose areas. There are patient rooms featuring traditional fixtures such as parallel bars designed to support those re-learning to walk. There are the staff offices, where Mac computers with the latest CAD technology adorn the desks. And behind the scenes is a combination workshop and artist’s studio, where a huge tub of Plaster of Paris and a hand painting station sit adjacent to high-tech manufacturing equipment.
A closer look at the process further demonstrates the hybrid skills needed in this industry. Seeberg shares the story of a recent client who had part of his hand crushed in an accident. The journey to reconstruction began when the clinical team at Real Life Prosthetics took a model of both hands. Next, Seeberg used the latest computer technology to digitally recreate a three-dimensional mirror image of the undamaged hand, making up to 8,000 modifications to ensure an exact match down to the fingerprint. Computer data was then linked to a three-axis carver in the production room to make a perfectly matched prostheses. Finally, a technician added finishing touches, painting on capillary systems and custom making fingernails to ensure a virtually undetectable end product. To prove his point, Seeberg holds up a prosthetic foot and jokes, “That’s how you know [the prostheses is] one of ours – it has toenails!”
A Leg Up on the Competition
From the start, Real Life Prosthetics positioned itself as ahead of the curve, and was one of the first in the area to routinely use vacuum suspension to ensure a tighter, more comfortable fit. Today, Seeberg says Real Life Prosthetics continues to lead the way with industry best practices, and is one of a limited number of businesses around the country specializing in high-definition silicone (known as alloplastics), which delivers the most lifelike restoration of fingers, hands, toes and feet.
Likewise, Seeberg and his team are one of a handful of private companies trained and authorized to provide care and programming for veterans with the Genium bionic prosthetic knee, a product that is only available to the U.S. military. Real Life Prosthetics is also well versed in the latest commercially available products, including the bionic iLimb prosthetic hand with individually-powered digits and the Michelangelo hand that features opposable thumb movements.
Real Life, Real People
At the end of the day, Seeberg says it’s the people he serves that matter – and those people come from all over. Real Life Prosthetics has served clients from around the country, the Middle East and Africa, including people from all walks of life: kids, seniors and a firm specialty – athletes.
In fact, one of Real Life Prosthetics’ most famous clients is Paralympic gold medalist Jessica Long. Long, who was born in Russia but adopted by U.S. parents, first came to Real Life Prosthetics when she was just 11 years old. Seeberg and the Real Life team were able to help her achieve her goal of running, and today she also plays basketball and competes in triathlons. From a business perspective, Seeberg says an exclusive five-year endorsement deal with Long “definitely put us in the spotlight with athletes.”
Of his clients, Seeberg says, “It’s really all about empowering the amputees we serve. If a guy from the Pentagon says to me, ‘I want to be able to kayak, can you build me a kayaking arm?,’ I want to be able to do that.”
Business with a Heart
At the core of Seeberg’s mission are his Christian beliefs and core values. Seeberg says, “With the egos in this business, sometimes you can lose sight of the purpose you exist; that is, continuing to be servants and helping clients to the best of my ability, given the resources and technology that exists.”
Since 2001, volunteers from Real Life Prosthetics have made seven separate trips to Colombia, South America as part of Life and Limb Ministries, a non-profit that to date has provided 60 prosthetic legs to indigent amputees, many of whom had never walked before, in and around the remote mountain village of Baranquilla, Colombia in South America. Closer to home, Seeberg also oversees The Amputee Network, an online resource dedicated to educating and empowering all amputees, their families and friends.
Challenges & Advice
While it may sound like Real Life Prosthetics has led a charmed life, just as with any business there have been challenges along the way. For instance, in the wake of insurance changes in the late 1990s, the business faced some tough times, and while Seeberg says he wouldn’t want to go through it again, he also adds, “I don’t wish it away. You learn from it.”
When asked about sharing lessons learned, he offers the following advice: “Stick to your core values. And don’t expect tomorrow is going to come the way you think it is. Be prepared for that curveball you absolutely weren’t expecting. You have to be flexible, find solutions and work through the obstacle to continue being able to serve.”
Looking ahead, Seeberg says his goal for the future is for the generation currently working at Real Life Prosthetics to set the stage for future generations. “My hope is we build something beautiful and train our children so they want to continue the work.” I95