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Willmar orthotics fabrication business is unique for small city

WILLMAR -- In 2004, Lori Henrikson of Benson developed Charcot's foot, a complication of diabetes that leads to weakening of the bones and fractures in the foot. In most cases, the problem affects only one foot.

Henrikson needed a brace to prevent further dislocation of the bones in her left foot. She might have had to drive to St. Cloud or the Twin Cities to obtain an orthotic device, but got what she needed closer to home at Hagen Orthotics & Prosthetics Inc. in Willmar.

Henrikson's foot and ankle brace was custom-made by Warren Hagen and technician John Garding at Hagen's office and laboratory, a small downtown Willmar business that specializes in fitting and fabricating upper limb, lower limb and spinal orthotic devices.

Most cities the size of Willmar don't have a shop that offers these kinds of services.

"I would say it is uncommon for a population of 20,000, just because of the smaller population,'' says Hagen. "You have to work so much harder for that degree of population. It's a little easier to have a facility like this in a much greater populated area.''

Henrikson says driving farther than Willmar to obtain a brace would have taken time away from babysitting her granddaughter. Henrikson quit her nursing home job of 14 years in Benson because of her problem.

"The doctor said it was too much time on my feet,'' she said.

But Henrikson says the brace enables her to walk around the house and stay mobile. She's on her fourth brace from Hagen.

"I put it on in the morning and it's on until I go to bed at night,'' she says. "Better to be this way than in a wheelchair.''

Hagen says Henrikson can't walk without the brace.

"That's the hardest thing for a lot of people to realize if they take even a couple of steps, that could dislocate that and then we end up with the wounds and the internal wounds,'' he said. "It's not always what we see on the outside, but what gets stretched and torn on the inside when it's that fragile and that slowly comes out to the outside and those wounds are so deep.''

Orthotic devices are used to support, correct or replace musculoskeletal functions lost through physical impairment. These braces are prescribed for patients with temporary or permanent disabilities.

Hagen says prosthetic providers are usually not associated with a hospital, but operate as private individuals like himself.

"If you're trying to make stuff on your own and the amount of room it takes, it's hard to fit that into a hospital for the most part,'' Hagen explains. "It just takes quite a bit of room. And because of all the chemicals you're using, that does kind of pull you into manufacturing.''

Patients are referred by physicians or podiatrists. Foot and ankle problems comprise the largest share of Hagen's business.

"It general it's a lot of word-of-mouth, and that's probably the other biggest percentage of our business is individuals like Lori that (say) if you have a problem, go see Hagen. And the doctors in this area work very well with us. They know what we provide and for prescriptions. It's a good teamwork for the area,'' he said.

The fabrication process begins by replicating the limb with a plaster cast. Padding is applied to the cast where needed, and carbon and plastic materials are heated and molded to conform to the shape of the cast. The components are removed from the cast and reassembled. The final step is pulling and sewing the leather over the top.

"Everything is 100 percent molded,'' he says.

Hagen keeps six months to a year's worth of material on hand for making devices. That way he can make anything and everything without ordering parts.

And he carries over 500 pairs of shoes at all times. He sees a tremendous number of diabetics who have foot problems. Many of them are doing well but need properly fitting shoes, and Hagen can make modifications to meet his patients' needs.

"Without the full laboratory, we wouldn't be able to provide the service at any level that we do, being able to make everything -- about 90 percent -- in-house,'' he said.

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150