Restoring lives, one limb at a time
Victoria Marsh had no interest in picking out a new foot.
After losing the lower half of her left leg to bone cancer in early 2015, the 13-year-old with Down Syndrome exerted control by refusing to allow anyone to touch her leg.
Her mother, Karen, was equally frustrated by the process of getting Victoria fitted for a prosthesis.
“The first people we went to thought I knew more than I did," she said. “I needed more information and Victoria needed someone who made her feel comfortable.”
Both say they found what they were looking for at Independence Prosthetics and Orthotics.
Although resistant at first, Victoria quickly formed a bond with Independence owner John Horne, based partly on their shared experience.
Horne lost his right leg below the knee to bone cancer when he was 15.
“I think that carries a lot of weight with our patients,” he said with a wry smile. “They might not remember my name but they remember the guy with one leg.”
Horne’s ability to relate to his patients on a personal level has helped the 10-year-old company grow from a side job in his basement to what is now the largest prosthetic business in Delaware.
Today, Independence employs 30 people at five locations from Philadelphia to Dover and supplies the majority of prosthetic limbs worn by amputees in the First State.
“If you had told me years ago that we’d get this big, I never would have believed you,” the 41-year-old said. “I really believe it’s just a side effect of our desire to provide the best service possible.”
Horne’s interest in prosthetics as a career first took root during a ski trip in the Poconos with other amputees just a few months after he received his first artificial leg.
“That was the first time I got to see all the different pieces and parts out there,” he said.
The following winter, Horne broke his own prosthetic leg during a downhill run and had to be fitted for a replacement.
“I was sitting there in the casting room and I looked around and literally said, ‘I think I can do this,’” he recalled. “That’s when the light switch flipped for me.”
Horne went on to earn a bachelor’s degree at Wilmington College and a certification in prosthetics and orthotics from Northwestern University. He then spent a decade learning the ropes through various jobs in the industry.
It was while working one of those jobs that Horne began making his own sockets – the piece of custom-molded hardware that attaches the devices to a patient’s body – in his basement.
By 2007, Horne had taken out a home equity loan and launched Independence in a commercial space off Kirkwood Highway, where the company still makes its sockets today.
“We’re sort of like a drugstore in that we work off of a prescription from a doctor and payment is dictated entirely by insurance,” he said. “There’s really no price competition in this business and everyone has access to the same products.”
The secret to Independence’s success, he said, comes down to its relationships.
That includes employing an experienced staff that works well with patients, as well as forming bonds with the doctors and physical therapists who provide the company with most of its referrals.
Horne and his team also routinely organize outings for their patients, ranging from ski trips like the one that changed his life to golf, sled hockey and bowling.
“It’s been my experience that being around people going through the same thing is a tremendous help,” he said. “It eases their fears and improves confidence.”
Horne’s focus on relationships also extends to innovations made possible through Independence’s connection to researchers at the University of Delaware.
In late 2015, the company opened its fifth location at UD’s Science, Technology and Advanced Research (STAR) Campus off South College Avenue in Newark. There, Independence shares space with some of the state’s most promising startups, the university’s College of Health Sciences, the Delaware Rehabilitation Institute and the BADER Consortium, which studies orthopedic rehabilitation for wounded warriors.
“The research and development that goes on here creates huge opportunities for us and our patients,” Horne said. “There’s nothing else like it in the region.”
Independence, for instance, already has helped BADER study the effectiveness of certain rehab therapies on people with prosthetics. UD’s engineering department also has helped the company explore new socket technologies and develop a method to recycle waste plastic for use in artificial joints.
“The ultimate goal for me is in-house, on-demand manufacturing of the prosthetics themselves,” Horne said. “If I have the tools to create my own foot instead of ordering it from a manufacturer, then I can afford to give my clients something a little extra, even if the insurance companies won’t cover it.”
Victoria’s family, meanwhile, says it plans to keep coming back to Independence for the compassion and empathy.
Now a 15-year-old freshman at Appoquinimink High School, Victoria is still undergoing cancer treatments.
But since getting what she calls her “fancy foot,” she’s also joined the school swim team, taken up surfing and even famously met her idol, singer Taylor Swift with some help from the Dover Police Department. Now she plans to attend a ski camp in the Poconos with Horne and other amputees in February.
“John was very patient with Victoria until she became comfortable with the prosthesis and herself,” Victoria’s father, Rob, said. “That's made all the difference for us.”
Contact business reporter Scott Goss at (302) 324-2281, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ScottGossDel.
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