More MS news articles for July 2002

Helping Others Walk With Ease

Crutches, Canes Get a New Look

Thursday, July 4, 2002
By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer

When Harry Herman had to balance himself on crutches after breaking his ankle on ice, he was frustrated and in pain. An engineer by training with 50 years of experience designing nuclear systems and the like, he was determined to invent better, less painful crutches.

Nine years later and with more than $250,000 of his own and his friends' money invested in the project, he designed what he calls "strutters" and makes them in a warehouse in Kensington.

The contraption is made to look similar to a crutch. Its poles are made from lightweight aluminum and has extra padding under the arms. At the bottom of the poles, instead of a narrow piece of rubber, there is a wider piece that acts as a foot, and a shock-resistant spring allows the crutch to feel as though it's "walking with you," users said.

In concept, the strutter is not supposed to cause pain under the arms as crutches can after long periods of use, and it is meant to better balance a person's weight and give them better security in getting around after an injury or because of a disability.

Plus, Herman has designed the Sure Foot, a cane with a similar foot that allows for better mobility.

"Using a crutch is punishment," Herman said. "They force you to walk on a little tiny stick that if you put it on sand or a leaf, you'll slip and fall and hurt yourself. We had to make something that would act more like a person's foot and give you better footing."

Herman turned the strutter products into a full-time business called Orthotic Mobility Systems Inc. He started making the crutches from his home nine years ago and grew to need a warehouse in Kensington.

Now he has about a half-dozen employees, including a public relations person who was a former mutual funds salesman and a few autistic workers from a Prince George's County facility who assemble the products in a 5,000-square-foot warehouse on Metropolitan Avenue.

"When I designed these things, I designed them with it in mind that we'd have challenged people do the assembly," Herman said. "Those who are challenged should have good employment, and I wanted them to be a part of this whole project."

He said he has a contract with Melwood, a nonprofit agency in Upper Marlboro that works with the disabled, to use their workers. Herman would not disclose the amount of the contract but said Melwood pays the workers' health insurance and pays them directly.

At Orthotic Mobility's office, there is a small showroom where Herman has a display of "antique crutches" made from wood. There are a few of his early experiments made from PVC piping leaning against a wall.

Across the room is a small demonstration area, complete with sand in one box, rocks in another and a ramp for interested buyers and guests to try out the strutters.

Above the demonstration area are dozens of diagrams explaining the muscles that are saved by using the strutters instead of crutches. Plus, pictures of smiling children and seniors using his products, which run about $475 for a pair of strutters and $60 for the cane.

"This kid, Moses, had spina bifida and couldn't hardly walk," said Philip Neri Lyons, Herman's vice president of sales and marketing. "Now look at him," he said, as he pointed to a picture on the wall of a smiling child wearing a red Teletubby costume and leaning on a pair of green strutters as he walks down a hallway.

There's the video showing a double amputee using the strutters to get around and another woman in her log home coming down the steps for the first time using the company's canes. A 10-year-old gets better footing in before and after photos with the pediatric version of the cane.

Yvonne Brown, who spent more than $160 for two pairs of the Sure Foot canes about two months ago after seeing them on a TV health program, said she has been satisfied with the mobility they give her.

The Gaithersburg resident has multiple sclerosis and had used a walker.

"The Sure Foot canes have helped to improve my quality of life," she said. "I was using a walker and my back was going funny, but these keep me standing. I don't fall very easily, and they give me more mobility.

"I can even exercise a little bit and get in between chairs with them," she said. "I can walk with bigger steps, instead of just inching along with a walker. I can almost take a normal step with these Sure Foot canes."

Those are the stories that seem to keep Herman and Lyons going.

Orthotic Mobility has yet to make a profit, but Herman and his partners seem determined to keep making the product. So far they say they have sold about 250 strutters and 1,700 canes.

They are trying to find more investors to put up $750,000 for marketing, sales and production of the strutters.

A nonprofit Kensington group called Forest Glen Commonwealth Inc. is trying to work with Orthotic Mobility to start producing the strutters at a 26-acre campus in Silver Spring.

The site was once a seminary and later served as a school for affluent girls and then as a recovery center for U.S. soldiers returning from battle in World War II. It is now controlled by the General Services Administration, which must decide what to do with the land.

The Forest Glen group has put in an offer for the land, which it wants to use for a resource center for senior citizens.

"In theory, we could make together a product that seniors and most anyone who's been injured could use," Lyons said of the deal with the Forest Glen group.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company