Jean Sears, CPed, owner of Cantilever Shoes in Metairie, La., was a theater major in college. She still prefers long colorful scarves and dangly earrings to starched white lab coats.
Sears has run her store since 1976. In 1981, she moved Cantilever Shoes from downtown New Orleans, where it opened in 1921.
She converted the mostly retail firm into an American Board for Certification in Orthotics, Prosthetics and Pedorthics-accredited pedorthics facility. Most clients are doctor referrals; many of them are diabetes patients.
“My father was the money behind the store when I was growing up,” Sears said. “But I had nothing to do with it besides picking up two pairs of shoes a year to wear to school. When I started, I didn’t know a shank from a counter.”
The New Orleans native proved a quick study. She became board certified in 1980. Afterwards, she was an examiner for the former Board for Certification in Pedorthics. She also taught pedorthics to residents in the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Department of the Louisiana State University Medical School.
Her expertise did not go unrewarded. Sears was elected Pedorthic Footwear Association (PFA) president in 1984.
“When I left office, we were so small there wasn’t enough money to buy me the box, much less the watch that would have come in it,” she said with a chuckle.
Other honors came her way. In 2001, she received the Board for Certification in Pedorthics’ Lifetime Achievement Award.
Sears admits to having to learn the profession from the fitting stool up.
“My mother had the store after my dad died and when she died in 1976, I had no idea what to do with it,” Sears explained.
A sales representative suggested she become the boss.
“He said I should go to a shoe show in Atlanta where there would be people who could help me,” she said.
Sears agreed. She met pedorthics pioneer, John McMahan, who was one of the founders of PFA. McMahan was association president in 1974.
“He became my supreme mentor,” Sears said. “He had eight stores in Atlanta and taught many young pedorthists unselfishly.”
Sears added, “Well, I was a cute girl and everybody seemed to like me. I spent a week with John, following him around with a shoe horn. I tried to learn as much as I could, go home and put it into practice. And I did that again and again.”
After moving the store to Metairie, a New Orleans suburb, Sears decided to drop Cantilever’s fashion footwear lines, for which the store is named.
“If I had a shoe in five colors, some lady would say, ‘Oh, doesn’t it come in gray?’” Sears recalled. “I decided to go 180· to totally medical.”
Meanwhile, McMahan had encouraged Sears to become a certified pedorthist. She took the requisite pre-certification courses at Northwestern University. Her instructor was Dean Morgan, whom she succeeded as PFA president.
Sears says pedorthics education also means teaching clients and patients about shoes and orthotics.
“Diabetes has become a specialty of ours,” she said.
Footwear can literally save lives and limbs of diabetic patients who suffer neuropathy in their feet. A simple blister can become infected, develop gangrene and result in amputation. Death sometimes follows amputations in a few months or years.
Nonetheless, some people with diabetes – mostly women, according to Sears – balk at therapeutic shoes.
“I tell them, ‘I can’t forbid you from wearing something else, but I can tell you why wearing something else may be dangerous.’
“Even so, they say things like, ‘I can’t wear this to church.’ I say, ‘What’s the name of your church? I want to know what church won’t let you wear these shoes.’
“You have to be a psychologist as well as a pedorthist. I always say the sign outside the door should say ‘psychotherapist’ as well as ‘pedorthist,’” she said.
Like many other pedorthists, Sears says patient compliance can be a problem.
“Sometimes, our warnings go unheeded. I’ve seen people with diabetes end up losing one foot, then another and eventually their lives. It’s tragic.”
Sears also said people – especially women – sometimes sabotage their feet with ill-fitting fashion shoes that are too short or too narrow.
“You can expect to go up a size or a size-and-a-half when you come through our door,” she explained.
Feet get measured before they go into footwear at Cantilever Shoes. Her vintage Brannock Devices – like her store – survived Hurricane Katrina, which lashed the New Orleans area in 2005.
“There was eight inches of water in the store,” she said. “We lost a lot of our patient records. It was a real mess.”
She said many first-time clients are surprised when she grabs a Brannock.
“They start to tell me their size and I say, ‘Wait a minute, I’m going to measure both of your feet.’ They say they haven’t had their feet measured in years.”
Sears added, “another way to show people their shoes are too short is to pull an insert out of their shoe if you can. You can show them where their toes are pushing against the end of the shoe. I ask them, ‘Would you let your child wear a shoe that short?’
“I also tell them that the average person’s foot extends a half-size every decade. Most people accept what I tell them. They trust me because I’ve been doing this a long time,” she said.
Besides a small sales floor, Cantilever Shoes includes a full-service pedorthics lab, plus private fitting rooms. One room has a custom-made hydraulic chair lift. The device is for Beth Hahn, Sears’ staff CPed, who has rheumatoid arthritis.
Sears had a local sheet metal worker build the mechanical seat to make it easier for her employee to work with patients.
“It’s hard for her to get up and down off the floor,” Sears said. “Now we simply raise the patient and Beth can sit in front of them.”
Sears said Hahn is indispensable at Cantilever Shoes.
“I couldn’t make it without Beth. She remembers patients’ names and what we did for them. She has been my right hand ever since she got certified.”
Berry Craig is a correspondent for O&P Business News.