Previously published in Plastics Engineering and posted with permission from the Society of Plastics Engineers.
Sure, it’s another dog video. One of thousands on YouTube and Facebook. But this one explains how plastics helped an injured puppy run again. And how plastic prostheses and braces can help more and more injured animals live fuller lives.
An Injured Puppy
This story began four years ago. A three-month-old pit bull mix was discovered in upstate New York on train tracks, abused, all legs injured, with one paw nailed to a wooden railroad tie.
His rescuers were surprised the puppy survived. Severe injuries forced veterinarians to amputate one of his paws. The chances of him being able to walk or run again were slim.
In media reports he became known as the Railroad Puppy, and his story touched many, including Richard Nash, who adopted the puppy and named him Hudson.
Nash looked for prostheses that would help support Hudson’s leg with the missing paw. But the prostheses he tried took a month to create, so the puppy already had outgrown them by the time they arrived. Since prosthetics must fit snugly, Nash and Hudson needed a better answer.
Then Nash found Derrick Campana.
A Passion For Helping Animals
An expert in veterinary prosthetics and orthotics, Campana started his career working with humans, including wounded veterans. “One day a veterinarian came to my human practice,” Campana recalled, “and she had a dog… that needed a prosthetic device. I said, ‘I can try to help you. But I’ve never worked on a dog before.’
“I casted the dog. I made a successful device. She said, ‘You know there’s a lot of dogs that need these mobility devices or assistive devices.’ So ding, ding, ding, a light bulb went off. I said, ‘I love animals, I love this field of prosthetics, so start a business.’”
Campana has grown his business, Animal Ortho Care, into a worldwide practice that develops advanced prostheses for a wide variety of animals, from turtles to pandas. Like Hudson, some of the animals Campana helps have suffered devastating injuries, such as elephants that have been injured by land mines and need large prostheses.
Sadly, the need for veterinary prosthetics and orthotics is large—Campana estimates that his practice treats an average of 200 animals every month.
“We get emails everyday on all types of devices,” said Campana in 2016, “ranging from turtle to deer to pandas. I did elephants in Thailand, a ram in Spain. Goat, sheep, llama. Name it, we’ve probably done it. If I had to guess at the number of animals we’ve seen in my career over the last 12 years, it would have to be about 25,000.”
Plastics to the Rescue
To improve the quality of life for these animals, Campana relies on high-performance materials, including medical grade polypropylene and polyethylene plastics. These plastics enable him to very quickly craft and mold prostheses that contour to the shape of an animal’s body, while typically bypassing the long production times.
“These are all custom devices,” said Campana. “We send out casting kits all over the world…People will take a mold of their dog or animal’s leg, ship that to us, and we’ll custom make… the prosthesis or brace necessary for them to use. It started out locally, and then I thought of the casting kit concept so I could go global. Ever since, it’s blown up, and I’ve been able to help (animals) around the world.”
Campana explained the make up of his typical products: “The entire shell of the prosthesis or orthosis is plastic. The liner is made out of non-porous foam… plastic. Then the prosthetic feet that I put on most prostheses are a plastic. There’s a proprietary plastic that we’re starting to use that’s more of a low temperature thermoplastic, which makes modifying these braces and prosthetics a lot easier for the veterinarians to do at their own practices.
“I’ve made prosthetics out of lots of different materials, (but the) plastics that we use… are very, very durable. They last the life of the pet. We find that plastics like we use here not only are good to ship all over the world because they can be modified, but they hold up much better and are much more durable… They are also heat mold-able… literally, if there’s something that we need to change with the prosthesis, I can bring it right back to the lab, heat it up, and refit it. And we aim to have them affordable and actually save people lots of money with a lot of our orthotic devices that we make instead of going to surgery,” which is important to pet owners who typically don’t have insurance to cover veterinarian care.
“The advantages of using these types of plastics are for one they are extremely lightweight. If they were heavy, the dogs wouldn’t accept them. They would just fall right off the leg. I’m lucky to have these plastics because I literally couldn’t do what I do without them.”
A New Approach
After learning about Nash and Hudson, Campana began designing and building a prosthetic device to help the then one-year-old dog regain much of his mobility. Success would require a prosthesis that was comfortable, lightweight, and extremely durable to help Hudson run again. If all went well, Hudson would adjust to the prosthesis as if it were an extension of his own body.
So Campana created something new for Hudson. “We had to send him a few prototypes, to see how he would react. And then when we made our new blade runner design… the first spring foot design… that’s when I actually wanted to come up there. I knew that we had something that I wanted to try and personally fit on Hudson.”
Campana drove from his Virginia shop to upstate New York with the new prosthesis. From the time they met, Campana had a feeling there was something special about Hudson. “Hudson had the desire. He had the will…. He wanted to run.”
The moment of truth finally arrived. Campana carefully fitted the custom prosthesis onto Hudson’s leg.
Hudson’s response? He looked up at Nash and Campana, took a few tentative first steps… and then he took off running. And he simply didn’t want to stop.
“We saw him,” Campana recalled. “Richard was crying. I was tearing up. It’s one of the best moments, because it was a new design, a new type, on this dog that we loved, on a dog that’s gone through this trauma, these injuries, and has such a following. When all these things lined up together, and we fit him with a new prosthesis… and he just ran away. It all lined up. Perfection.”
Hudson Helping Humans
Due to his growing fame, Hudson actually is helping Campana raise awareness of solutions to a big problem. “I feel like maybe 20% of the population knows that these options of (animal) prosthetics and orthodontic devices exist,” Campana said. “If 100% of dog owners knew, then we could treat thousands more dogs and save thousands more dogs’ lives. You don’t have to put them down.”
Hudson now is widely known as a symbol for overcoming adversity—with the help of Nash’s love, Campana’s passion, and a plastic prosthesis. He’s even been to the White House.
But while he still is known as the Railroad Puppy, many people who struggle in various ways, including injured veterans, also know him as Hudson the therapy dog.
“When he walks in and sees amputees and war vets like I used to treat,” said Campana, “he’s able to give them a sense of relief and show them that, ‘Oh, if this dog can overcome this handicap, then I can too.’ He’s perfect just the way he is, and he’s able to show that.”
In 2016, Plastics Make it Possible® created a video about Hudson, Campana, Nash… and plastics. The video has been viewed, liked, or shared by millions. The video can be viewed at: http://bit.ly/2bU3P64