Lawrence Hill, CP, CPed, enjoys color coordinating the foot orthoses he makes.
The Mississippian’s motives are mixed. “Reason number one is I do not want to get bored with what I am doing,” said Hill, owner of J.J. Hill Brace and Limb, a 59-year-old family firm in Gulfport, Miss.
Hill thinks his clients appreciate his creativity. “I like to match a color scheme. Let’s say they have a snazzy pair of red sneakers — I can make red and black orthotics to go along with them.
“My adult patients like that. So do some children, who like something sort of psychedelic.”
There also is a practical side to his multi-hued inserts. “If people need a second pair, as they often do, then I make them in a different color so they don’t mix them up.”
Hill is not the only board certified pedorthist in the house. He is joined by Dawn Hill, his daughter.
She grew up in the business. “I started working here part-time when I was 16,” she said. “I knew I would end up a CP or a CPed.”
She is happy that pedorthics became her profession. She was certified in 2001.
“The thing I love most about this job is that it is white collar and blue collar,” she told O&P Business News. “You get to work with patients. But you also get go to in the back, get dirty working with plaster and listen to the Atlanta Braves games on the radio.”
Her prosthetist father is a New York Yankees fan. Bronx Bombers partisans are rare in the Magnolia State. So are pedorthists who are also certified prosthetists.
Hill said pedorthics was his doorway into orthotics. He was certified as a prosthetist in 1978 and as a pedorthist 17 years later.
“A certified prosthetist has no business dealing with foot orthotics — that is a specialized field. There is a point where a pedorthist might do a partial foot prosthesis. But at no time would you see a pedorthist make an above-the-knee prosthesis, nor would you expect to see a prosthetist make arch supports.”
Both Hills craft orthoses in the company’s lab. The firm is headquartered in a converted house that survived — barely — Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Hurricane Camille devastated Gulfport in 1969, just when Hill, a soldier in Army intelligence, was about to be sent to Vietnam. Camille shut down the business for 18 months. “My grandparents bought a house next door and converted this house into their business,” Dawn Hill said
Katrina’s wrath made it a shambles.
“We were not just in the water,” she said. “A tornado that was part of the hurricane took off our roof. Everything inside was destroyed.
We didn’t have power for 3 weeks. The floors were caved in and there was black mold everywhere.”
But she said the family built back a better business.
“We moved walls and widened halls and made everything more convenient for our patients and more handicapped accessible. That was a positive from Katrina.”
There was a big negative, too. “When we were not operating, doctors were sending their patients to other facilities and a lot of our patients had moved away.
“It was tough. After we reopened, it took us another year to build our business back up to where it was before Katrina.”
Much of the business is military. Gulfport is home to the Naval Construction Battalion Center Gulfport. Keesler Air Force base is in nearby Biloxi. “There are also a lot of reservists and retirees in the area,” Dawn Hill said.
All in the family
Lawrence Hill’s late father, J.J. Hill, learned his craft in the Army in World War II and started his business in Gulfport in 1954.
The staff now includes another of J.J. Hill’s sons, Christopher Hill, an orthotic technician and Amber Hill Beatty, an orthotist. “My sister grew up in the business, too,” Dawn Hill said. “Dad decided to section us off. She ended up working with AFOS, and I wound up in the foot orthotics and the shoes.”
Dawn fits shoes and crafts orthoses for many active duty and retired military men and women. “They do a lot of running in the military, so I see a lot of shin splints, plantar fasciitis, tendonitis and metatarsalgia.”
In addition, many of her patients are retirees, military and civilian, who have diabetes, often complicated by neuropathy. “You name it, I have seen it — nails, staples and push pins embedded in their feet, and they couldn’t feel it.”
Hill also said more than a few of her patients with diabetes hate having to switch to therapeutic footwear.
“The shoe companies have come a long way from the Frankenstein shoes.”
Hill does not have diabetes, but she often wears diabetic footwear to work. “The shoes are comfortable, and they make it easier for me to sell them to patients.”
She said fitting shoes and crafting orthoses is both art and science.
“You have to know the anatomy of the foot, but there is art involved in making orthotics. It takes some sculpting skills.”
Her dad agrees. “There is a science to fitting shoes, but there is also an art that really comes through experience. You could have three feet that measure a 10 wide, say, but they don’t fit the same.”
Lawrence also agrees with his daughter on what makes a good certified pedorthist. “You have to keep patients informed about their condition and what you are doing to help them. It helps with compliance.
“I love getting to see a positive outcome — people’s feet getting healed. We have so many repeat patients. They’ve been coming to us for umpteen years.”