“A man who works with his hands is a laborer; a man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman; but a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist.”
—Louis Nizer (1902–1994)
Michael Smerka was an artist first. He received a bachelor of fine arts (BFA) degree from Purchase College, State University of New York (SUNY Purchase), with a major in sculpture and a concentration in furniture making. Nowadays he puts his creative talents to work as a certified prosthetist at a Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics, New York, New York, patient care facility.
1. How did you become interested in O&P?
After injuring my left knee during a work-related incident at a major New York City museum, I spent four months in physical therapy following knee surgery. I began looking into professions that I could transition to from a career in woodworking/furniture making, and knew that I wanted to be involved in some facet of physical rehabilitation. Then, a chance encounter with John Rheinstein, CP, FAAOP, introduced me to O&P. Prosthetics has long been considered an art and a science, so having an art background helped me isolate prosthetics as the perfect integration between art and rehabilitation medicine. Approaching prosthetics as an artist allows me to see socket design from a sculptural perspective, to treat every socket as a Brancusi. (Editor's note: Constantin Brancusi, 1876–1956, was a Romanian sculptor.)
2. What has motivated or inspired you in your professional pursuits?
I find inspiration every day. It may be the smile from someone standing for the first time after an amputation, the appreciation of a family member whose loved one is more comfortable after an adjustment, or from a motivated patient who wants to get to the next level of performance. John Rheinstein gave me the opportunity to apprentice with him and learn hands-on about prosthetics. He instilled a standard of care that set my moral compass to point in the direction it does today.
3. What are your professional goals?
I push myself so that my prosthetist's "toolbox" continues to grow and develop, be it in the area of patient care or testing my clinical boundaries to keep up with, or slightly ahead of, patients who demand the most from their prostheses. In the future, I hope to travel to developing countries where I can fit patients who desperately need access to quality care.
4. Please describe your approach to patient care.
I get to know and understand my patient and his or her needs and work on developing a sense of trust. After this is established, we work through the evaluation process together to identify the most appropriate and effective prosthesis for him or her. We establish realistic goals of what's possible and then work diligently to exceed those goals. I believe you can't put a time limit on someone's comfort and mobility.
5. Do you have an unusual or exceptional story you would like to tell?
I grew up in a New York community where many German Jewish immigrants lived following WWII. My grandmother's good friend Vera had been forced to stand out in the cold for hours each day as a young woman during her imprisonment in a German concentration camp. This had caused severe damage to her legs, and I remember she was always having surgeries to help stabilize her aging body and blood vessels. Several years after my grandmother's death, I received a call to see a patient at a nursing home. I walked into the room, and there was Vera. She had recently received a second transtibial amputation. While she lost the fight to keep her legs, she never lost her spirit and sense of compassion. My grandmother would have been proud that I was part of Vera's rehabilitation.