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Minnesota prosthetist building limbs for Ukrainian soldiers, civilians

A small, newly formed Twin Cities prosthetic manufacturer works closely with a nonprofit organization to fit Ukrainians with free devices.

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Wade Hallstrom, at far right, poses with a group of Ukrainian soldiers and children that he helped fit with new limbs.
Contributed / Wade and Heidi Hallstrom
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PARK RAPIDS, Minn. — A small, newly formed Twin Cities prosthetic manufacturer works closely with a nonprofit organization to fit Ukrainian soldiers and civilians with free devices.

Wade Hallstrom has been involved in the prosthetic industry for his whole life, while Heidi has been in the field for 23 years. In September, they launched their own prosthetic device manufacturing company, called Heidi’s Legs LLC.

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Heidi and Wade Hallstrom's new company, Heidi's Legs, is manufacturing prosthetics for the nonprofit Protez Foundation.
Contributed / Heidi's Legs LLC

“It’s been very rewarding to open up our business and help this nonprofit get this work done,” said Hallstrom, who grew up in St. Hilaire, Minnesota, near Thief River Falls, but now lives in the Twin Cities. “We’re happy to help out that community with our tools and craftsmanship.”

Making connections

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Wade fits Artem with his new left arm. Artem was injured by a Russian missile strike this past summer near his grandmother’s home in Zhytomyr, a city of 49,000 southwest of Kyiv. His father and brother were killed in the blast.
Contributed / Heidi Hallstrom

Hallstrom is a longtime volunteer for Wiggle Your Toes , a nonprofit organization in Minneapolis which helps amputees throughout Minnesota. Through Wiggle Your Toes, Hallstrom met Yakov Gradinar, a Ukrainian-born prosthetist who now practices in Minneapolis. Gradinar, along with Peter Nordquist of Bemidji, launched the Protez Foundation which aims to help Ukrainian children, soldiers and civilians who have lost their limbs during the war to get free, quality prosthetics in the U.S.

“Protez has a lot of volunteers to see patients, but didn’t have the capability to manufacture the stuff,” Hallstrom explained. “We’ve now done probably 20 to 25 different projects, teaming up with Protez, just to run those jobs through our start-up company and to get everything built and fit because it’s a very tight turnaround.”

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Empathetic to the Ukrainian plight, Wade and Heidi Hallstrom provide the prosthetics to Protez at deeply discounted rates. They also help fit the devices.

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This is an example of a prosthetic made by Heidi's Legs in their lab in Hugo, Minn.
Contributed / Heidi's Legs, LLC

Protez is trying to raise $1.5 million to help the first 100 Ukrainian children, soldiers and civilians. There are already 150 Ukrainians on a waiting list, Wade Hallstrom said.

A team effort

Protez arranges the temporary visas for the Ukrainians, so they can stay in Minnesota for a month to receive their new limb.

These are active soldiers that get fitted, then return to duty.

“They have brought some civilians here as well, but a lot of them have been Ukrainian soldiers,” Hallstrom said in a phone interview. “Just this week, there’s another group of eight here that we pretty much built all the devices for those guys and varying levels of amputation from the war or prisoners of war being tortured and limb loss from that.”

Noting there is a large Ukrainian population in the Twin Cities, Hallstrom said many of them volunteer at Protez “all day, every day, doing rehab and getting stuff done.”

There’s also a cadre of therapists and translators donating their time and services.

Hallstrom recalled how he fit six patients on one Sunday. “My main translator was a 12-year-old little girl. So it’s been a team effort.”

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‘Unbelievable’ motivation

“I’ve never experienced anything like this my entire career,” Hallstrom said.

Heidi Hallstrom said, “If you could be in the room when they are trying them on and walking, the smiles on their faces, it’s priceless. I cry every time.”

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Highly motivated, Ukrainians progress within a week whereas Wade's regular patients take six months.
Contributed/Wade Hallstrom

Wade added, “A lot of them are special-forces-type soldiers that we’re fitting, so I’ve seen them progress in a week what would take six months for one of my normal patients with therapy and guidance to get through. It’s unbelievable. They’re just so motivated and determined. It’s just incredible.”

Within a few days of receiving new limbs, Wade said a group of soldiers is already back on the battlefield.

“These are all young people we’re seeing, and it’s a life-changing event. It’s going to be something they deal with forever, but for the moment, they’re trying to get every single person rehabbed and fighting,” he said.

The Hallstroms find that a few Ukrainians know some English.

The language barrier is “definitely a challenge because it’s a lot of medical terminology and your translator is often a layperson that doesn’t know what you’re trying to communicate,” Wade said. “Fitting a prosthesis takes a lot of communication. It’s a very intimate thing. We’re having you weight-bear where you haven’t been weight-bearing on your limb before.”

The socket has to fit “very precisely.”

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Fitting with a translator takes about three times longer than normal, he added.

Heidi said there is a lot of modeling and miming to show the patient what is trying to be accomplished. Fittings are frequently performed as a group, too.

The Hallstroms also have recruited American veterans with amputees to empower the Ukrainians.

The Hallstroms’ son just got out of the Army. He volunteers, too. “He just sits and talks with them. It makes quite a difference to have another veteran sit there,” Wade said.

It’s obvious, Wade said, that the Ukrainians have severe post-traumatic stress disorder. But their resiliency also shines through.

Working with a translator, Wade recently fit a 12-year-old boy who had an above-the-knee amputation.

Once finished, “he jumps up, grabs his coat and runs outside.

“It just made me cry,” Wade said. “Mind over matter. The human spirit is incredible.”

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Wade said Ukrainian soldiers with below-the-knee amputations receive a day-to-day prosthesis, plus a sports prosthesis. "All these soldiers are active. They go right back to work," he said.
Contributed / Heidi Hallstrom

Not ideal

Ideally, the Hallstroms say there should be an organization in Europe, but for now, the volunteers and equipment are in Minnesota. There’s another outfit on the East Coast.

“Keep in mind, there are thousands of new amputees. This is horrific,” Wade said.

Russia attacked Ukraine 10 months ago. The Hallstroms praised Protez Foundation for organizing so quickly.

“It’s been truly a miracle,” Wade said.

Only a handful of Ukrainians can be processed at a time, notes Heidi, because it involves visas, travel and temporary housing.

“Somebody donated a house to Protez for these people to stay in while they’re here,” added Wade. “It’s unbelievable what they’ve done. We just have a small part in the whole thing.”

Vendors are providing parts to Heidi’s Legs at discounts for this cause. The Hallstroms aren’t charging their normal fees, either. “We’re deeply, deeply discounting anything we’re doing the best we can, just to keep the materials covered,” Wade said.

Heidi added, “The first legs to go out of our shop were pro bono for one of the Ukrainian soldiers. A bilateral.”

The Hallstroms chuckle because, as a new business, they should be focusing on making money.

“But we’re doing this instead,” Wade said.

With only the two of them on staff, Heidi said they have long work days. Friends and family members assist with manufacturing, as needed.

“Most of the people in the prosthetic industry are out to just help any amputee they can,” she said. “It’s got nothing to do with the money. It’s about getting them to live a good life again.”

Related Topics: UKRAINE
Shannon Geisen is editor of the Park Rapids Enterprise.
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