Someone who has just lost a limb, or even a finger, is faced with an array of restorative services in addition to the emotional impact of the loss. Initially, rehabilitation focuses on the medical: reducing swelling, maximizing remaining range of motion, managing pain and the like. The next step–deciding on a prosthetic replacement–requires selecting a provider who specializes in a particular combination of utility, cost and appearance. These decisions are based on an individual’s lifestyle needs more than on their medical ones, and it is important to find a prosthetics provider that can support a client’s priorities.
For many prosthesis users, appearance and function are both important. However, while the small community of “anaplastologists” specializes in high-realism prostheses, they rarely create a piece as large as an entire arm or leg. On the other hand, prosthetists are not trained in these techniques, sometimes dismissed as “only cosmetic.”
Stefan Knauss has been fascinated by prosthetics since he created a wooden mechanical hand for a high school competition. Trained as an orthotist and prosthetist but also as an artist, Stefan started his career in 1988 as an apprentice to other professionals. Ten years later he and his occupational therapist wife Elisabeth Knauss founded Aesthetic Prosthetics, Inc to bridge the functional and cosmetic aspects of prosthesis creation. Stefan recalls deciding to become an entrepreneur: “There came a point where I realized I would never do cosmetic work unless I broke out of [conventional prosthetics.]” By bringing together techniques from several traditionally-distinct disciplines, Aesthetic Prosthetics provides specialized services for a set of amputees that is otherwise largely neglected by the prosthetist community.
Aesthetic Prosthetics’ philosophy is to think of its prostheses as tools. Restoring someone’s hand function does not necessarily require electronics. For someone who has lost part of a hand, puzzling out the possibilities that still exist for grasping is critical. Beyond function, though, are people’s psychological needs. “There’s the world of functional prosthetics and then there’s the guy that does the aesthetics,” Stefan notes. He says those two worlds are mostly separate–a gap he wants to bridge. “If there’s one thing I’d like to establish it’s that my professional record shows that I cross between both fields all the time. I’m constantly bringing the functionalist issues to bear on my artwork and vice versa, allowing the clients to guide me in where the tradeoffs need to be, if there are any,” says Stefan.
Stefan’s wife, Elisabeth (Beth) Knauss, is the co-owner of Aesthetic Prosthetics. After specializing in occupational therapy for 15 years, she can speak the language of many referring professionals. She helps the entire medical team inside and outside Aesthetic Prosthetics work together smoothly. She is an advocate for clients, working to obtain the prescriptions, authorizations and other needed documents – a task that takes an average of five to ten hours per client, on the phone with insurance companies and other interested parties.
Gina Cohen joined the company in August
2008, but she has been sculpting since she was nine years old.
“I grew up always wanting to work in the medical field, but at
the same time always doing art,” she declares. After earning
an undergraduate degree at Florida State University and an MFA
from New York Academy of Art, Gina worked on facial prostheses
at Columbia Medical School. She says, “I like the idea of creating anatomical portraiture.” This convergence of sculpture and medicine particularly energizes her since people benefit from it in such a tangible way. “The great thing about this job is that it is really unique, “ she says, noting that she enjoys improving clients’ lives. “There are a bunch of different techniques to achieve the highest degree of realism, so it’s a matter of honing those techniques to the best of my ability in order to make the prosthesis the best that it can be.”