Michael Christopher Vecchione relies on James M. Wilson Sr., CO, RPA, for his prosthetic care. Wilson ensures that Vecchione’s gait is seamless and his cosmesis looks natural.
Wilson, in turn, consults Vecchione for his musical advice. In fact, Vecchione recently assisted in engineering an album for Wilson’s band.
These two men also built a friendship based on their mutual interests and confidence in each other’s abilities. But this trust serves a larger purpose than its social benefit; it allows Vecchione to perform in his everyday life.
Vecchione was diagnosed with osteomyelitis in the 1970s and, when doctors were unable to control the infection, they removed his right leg transtibially in January 1981. He received his first prosthesis shortly after, and Vecchione got right back on his feet, playing golf and learning to ski.
While re-evaluating his physical limitations, he also expanded his mind. A few months before his amputation, Vecchione had decided to pursue a new career in piano technology. Instead of putting this dream on hold, he focused on the positive aspects of his current situation.
“I spent the entire recovery reading books on tuning pianos and repairing and rebuilding,” he said. “It was a marvelous replacement.”
Vecchione spent the months he was unable to walk sitting on piano benches to learn this new skill. Along with that, he took several classes in electronics at a community college in Baltimore, and also became a registered piano technician in the Piano technicians Guild in 1986.
Now 50 years old and an experienced composer, arranger and pianist, he combines his perfect pitch with those three skills to build a career, he said. He works as the senior piano technician at Goucher College in Towson, Md., where he is in charge of 30 instruments, including those in the three concert halls, one of which has a Basendorfer grand piano.
“I’m able to serve a lot of people doing that and I enjoy it immensely,” Vecchione said.
Aside from his job at Goucher, he has made the rounds in the Baltimore-area concert circuit as an advanced-level concert technician, working with big names such as Natalie Cole, Harry Connick Jr. and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. He has traveled to New York to repair John Lennon’s Steinway, on which Lennon had recorded the song “Imagine,” and has made specialized repairs for jazz pianists in London.
Power of the positive
Vecchione prefers to see the blessings of his tragedy.
“It’s tough getting up in the morning and stepping out of bed and nothing is there on the one side,” he said. “We set an example, hopefully in a positive way … People see our example and that we’ve taken a pile of dust and turned it into a statue.”
A member of the Amputee Association of Maryland, Vecchione has visited patients in local hospitals, surprising them by walking without a limp. He said he recovered by focusing on returning to normal life and helping other people to get his mind off phantom pain, and encouraged new amputees to follow his lead.
His career also provided a catharsis for him as he recovered.
“Piano tuning helped me a great deal because listening to all of the sounds helped cure me of the terrible phantom pain that I had early on,” he said. “The tuning was a psychological therapy.”
Ultimately though, he attributes his functionality to Wilson, who began working with Vecchione in 1983.
“When he first came in, he was wearing an old exoskeletal prosthesis, with a multi-axis foot that was squeaking. Typical setup that you’d see on a lot of transtibial amputees at the time,” Wilson said.
He quickly converted Vecchione to an energy-storing foot, and resolved lingering issues with atrophy and adherent tissue, resulting in a better fit for his lifestyle.
Vecchione followed Wilson to his current practice, Real Life Prosthetics in Abingdon, Md., and stayed with him through a move to the opposite coast.
“I have such a good prosthetist in Jamie and such a good company to work with, I’m really fortunate,” Vecchione said. “I lived in California for several years and I had a hard time finding [an O&P practice] that could accommodate me such as Real Life. I actually found myself willing to fly a 6,000-mile roundtrip to work with these people.”
He made this cross-country journey several times in a row to achieve his current prosthetic fit, before relocating again to Maryland.
Another aspect of Vecchione’s prosthesis that they are working on is the cosmesis. For Vecchione, the cosmetic covering is just as important as the prosthesis’s fit and the function.
“He always found himself either onstage or in a situation where cosmesis was extremely important to him. We have been trying to find something functional to work for him, but it has to look good as well,” Wilson said.
“I want to feel accepted. I want to feel like I’m a normal walking person,” Vecchione said. “Because of the excellent job they do in achieving the mechanical [aspect of] walking, I want to complement it with a good cosmetic appearance.”
Unfortunately, he said, Wilson is limited by the materials currently available to the industry, which do not endure over time. For this reason, Real Life Prosthetics has begun a 2-year program to evaluate patient feedback about cosmetic coverings for prostheses. Jonas Seeberg, BS, CPO, president of Real Life, requested Vecchione’s participation in this panel.
The main issue, Wilson said, is that this energy-storing foot is intended for sport use and does not work as well with cosmetic coverings. And Vecchione is not the only patient who experiences this issue.
“All of our patients who receive prosthetic skins experience wearing at the heel,” Wilson said. “Patients like this give us the opportunity to identify a problem that needs to be solved, and we’re willing to go ahead and do some long-term research to come up with something that has better durability for these folks.”
On a typical day, Vecchione enters the concert hall and simply tunes the piano; many times, however, he must remove the action, the 100-pound mechanical device that converts piano key depression into sound. He is able to lift the device out of the piano and carry it as necessary.
“The reason I’m able to do this is because of my prosthetist,” he said. “Jamie is just phenomenal. He fits my leg to me so comfortably, I feel almost like it’s my own limb. Not only Jamie, but each and every person on the Real Life team has played a vital role in the excellence of the final product.”
The key to this perfect fit is their complete communication, Wilson said.
“Knowing the world that he was working in and the things he needed to do, I could see the importance of cosmesis,” he said. “He was able to share those kinds of things with me. That helped me know what I needed to do prosthetically for him.”
Vecchione said he is grateful to have found a prosthetist he could connect with in this way.
“I would not have been able to achieve the successes I have in life if it were not for Jamie Wilson,” he told O&P Business News. “He has been that important link to help see me through. He’s a great communicator, which allows me to tell him exactly what I need.”
In fact, Wilson achieved a perfect fit on the first try with Vecchione’s current prosthesis.
“I put it on and he never had to do another thing,” he said. “I just walked out of the Real Life building. It was amazing.”
The pair’s symbiotic relationship stretches beyond prosthetics, as well. Because of the overlap in their mutual interests, Wilson has experienced Vecchione’s prowess in musical technology.
“He’s an excellent audio engineer. If I ever have a problem with those issues, he’s the guy I call. He’s kind of my professional in that aspect,” Wilson said.
One of Wilson’s musical projects is a Celtic rock band, O’Malley’s March, named for its lead singer, the current governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley. Wilson called on Vecchione to assist with vocal recordings on the band’s most recent album.
“Our paths have crossed in a lot of different ways,” he said.
Although Vecchione’s skills are highly specialized, Wilson offers Vecchione’s attention to detail as a lesson to all O&P practitioners.
“If we can listen to our clients, they will bring us solutions to a lot of what their problems are,” he said. “It would be so beneficial to our field if we became better listeners.”
Vecchione plans to work with Wilson and Real Life Prosthetics for as long as possible to maintain the prosthetic fit that allows him freedom to work in the industry he loves. Despite all of his professional successes, he remains humble, and said he hopes to be able to continue along this path.
“I’m just thankful for my skills, for the ability to help others and be an encouragement and to share the experiences of life I’ve found in my duties as a technician, as a recording engineer, as a composer,” he said.
Stephanie Z. Pavlou, ELS, is a staff writer for O&P Business News.