WATERLOO — Andy Steele never let a farm accident hold him down. Nor is he about to let that happen to anyone else.
When he lost a portion of one leg below the knee, the Montezuma native still played high school football, baseball and golf. At football, he moved from quarterback to center. In baseball, he pitched and played second base. The disability didn’t affect his swing in baseball or golf.
Steele is a co-owner of Clark & Associates Prosthetics in Waterloo, one of five partners. He’s also a former client. He’s spent the last 25 years there, helping fellow amputees resume healthy lifestyles — walking, running, and now, even skiing. The company recently hosted an adaptive ski event for clients throughout Northeast Iowa at Sundown Mountain in Dubuque. At the urging of an amputee client, Steele himself skied for the first time, along with his children.
It’s an example of how his clients have challenged him to think “outside the box,” so to speak, and to take advantage of technological improvements in the prosthetics industry.
“I lost my leg when I was 12 years old in a farm accident. And I actually used to come up here to see (company founder) Dale Clark back in the early '80s,” Steele said. “I got to know the Clark family,” both Dale and his son Dennis, who followed his dad into the business. “That’s how I ended up getting interested in the field.”
Steele graduated from the University of Iowa, developed an interest in the prosthetics industry and trained in the field at Northwestern University and an internship at a children’s hospital in Hartford, Conn.
“I headed back here,” he said, and recently marked his 25th anniversary in the business, as he displayed a microprocessor-driven prosthesis — a lower knee and foot. “This is actually controlled by a microprocessor. We can plug into this and program the knee to different activity levels for the patient,” he said.
“I played football and baseball through high school. It was interesting because we didn’t have any of this cool stuff — high-tech materials like Fiberglas and carbon graphic materials to make things lighter, stronger, more active. Also, we have gels we use inside the socket in the prostheses to make the prostheses more comfortable, less prone to break out the skin.”
It’s a far cry from the equipment he used as a high school athlete.
“Really, the technology I used back then was World War II technology,” he said. “There wasn’t much developed from World War II until about 1990. There was very little progress. It seems like since then, we started using the carbon materials, Fiberglas and gels since I started in the field, it’s really taken off. Made the prostheses lighter. Stronger. More comfortable. People can be more active.”
His recent ski outing was inspired by a client, Adam Weber, a snowboarder who lost part of his leg in a motorcycle accident. Last year, “we took him out to Sundown and he took off,” Steele said. The idea for the adaptive ski event also was inspired at that time.
“It’s fun to be challenged,” Steele said. “It keeps you on your toes and keeps you fresh if you have to keep people up and going.” For clients, “It can be as simple as going back to work. Or can be people who want to snowboard and run on a regular basis. It’s those challenges that keep your skills sharp and your mind sharp after this many years. We want to focus on what they can do, not what they can’t do. We try to offer them opportunities to do new things, try new things. And it’s fun to see them go out and do something again they did before — something they didn’t think they’d be able to do.”
Like a 12-year-old he once knew — himself.
“I really didn’t let a lot of things slow me down,” he said. “I got hurt in November and by the next spring I was out playing baseball again. You just adapt to it. That’s the great thing about kids. They just get up and get going. They just want to be like everybody else.”