Anew Life: Giving amputees the gift of hope

After losing his leg in 1988, Chris Casteel became an advocate for people with limb loss. In 2011, he turned his passion for prosthetics into a business.

by Robin Dalmas

Chris Casteel lost his leg in a motorcycle accident in 1988. After receiving a prosthetic leg, he returned to his day job in manufacturing, and eventually worked his way up to plant manager in the automotive industry. “The car industry was paying so well, there was no reason to leave it,” Casteel said.

But this was Detroit, whose fortunes have risen and fallen on the auto industry. Eventually, the pink slip arrived.

“I was laid off and had to reinvent myself,” he said.

As part of Casteel’s reinvention, he began volunteering at the same place that made his first prosthetic leg. “Once I was there, I realized that I’d rather make people parts than car parts.”

“I underestimated my potential for far too long. Once I got the support and realized what I was doing, whatever you want is limitless.”

Starting over, again

Casteel went back to school and got his Master’s Degree in Orthotics and Prosthetics from Eastern Michigan University in 2009. A few years later, in 2011, he turned his passion for prosthetics and helping people into a new business: Anew Life Prosthetics and Orthotics.

As an amputee for nearly 30 years, Casteel is uniquely positioned to help his patients. His business not only handcrafts artificial limbs and braces at the facility on Woodward Avenue in Detroit, but provides emotional support during difficult times.

Customers have lost limbs due to cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, peripheral vascular disease, infections, accidents, or sometimes, the natural aging process.

“You see some people who have really gone through some tragic things in life; you’ve got to keep it together for them and help them deal with all the emotions of being an amputee. One day you’re an average person walking down the street, and a short time later, you’re amputated. You don’t even know what this means, and how does it affect you. It’s body image. It’s finances. It’s how am I going to take care of myself.”

The healing process can be very slow, and Casteel and his staff work to help clients through that.

“Since starting my own business, what I’ve found is that being the owner, you’re the last guy to get paid. There are certain days when you ask, is this really worth it? But when you see someone able to walk, and take some pain away from someone, it makes it all worthwhile.”

The slow road to healing

“Everyone sees what’s on television. People are wandering around with these state-of-the-art arms and legs, and they’re doing all these amazing feats. But in reality, everyone who’s been there has worked very hard to get there. So what we try to do is calm them down, get them healed up, then explain to them how it’s a slow process with slow hurdles, then get them up and going.”

Amputation usually results in a lot of swelling. The Anew Life process often starts with something to control the swelling and help shape the residual limb. The patient works with physical and occupational therapy to improve range of motion. When the patient heals up enough to bear weight, Anew Life creates an initial cast of the residual limb and handcrafts a model that gets modified multiple times until it’s time to make the final prosthetic. The final step is to make the cosmetic cover.

“Being able to personalize the prosthesis is a huge part of it,” Casteel said. “Trying to get the colors right. Sometimes we’ll laminate a T-shirt or a toddler pajama into a prosthesis—whatever it will take to make the individual happier. For a child, to put something on the plastic to make them want to wear it is a big deal.”

It’s all part of the company’s mission to help patients achieve maximum independence and function. Throughout the process, Casteel draws on a deep well of compassion.

“When I first lost my leg, there really wasn’t any support group,” Casteel said. Back in 1988, his healthcare providers thought that he was handling the emotional loss so well, they encouraged him to counsel others who had lost limbs and were struggling. He has been an advocate for people with limb loss ever since. He now volunteers with the Amputee Coalition of America and is the organizer of the Downriver Limb Loss Support Group in Trenton, Michigan. “In this process, it’s a ‘pay it forward.’ I’ll help you through it, but I expect you to help the next person through it.”

“I’ve always loved working with my hands. This is another way where I create something that matters.”

Technology and compassion

Like most entrepreneurs these days, Casteel gets the word out about Anew Life through social media, including Facebook®, Twitter®, Google+, LinkedIn, and YouTube. Some of the best marketing efforts, however, involve Casteel going about his business with a prosthetic limb and no cosmetic cover. “Early on when I started, everybody wanted a cosmetic leg. You wanted to hide it from anyone knowing that you had an artificial limb. For me, the first time I had a run in my nylons and I had to ask for more nylons, I realized, who am I really doing this for? Since then I haven’t worn a cosmetic cover.”

He is often spotted riding his bike to work with the family dog in tow. “This summer alone I think we’ve picked up six or eight patients just from people seeing me ride my bike.”

Running a small business, Castell admits, brings enormous challenge every day. Detroit filed for bankruptcy in 2013; resources are strapped. The healthcare industry is in flux, and so is insurance reform. Sadly, there are patients who don’t spring back.

“When you see people and you know their body’s just giving out, they can’t do it anymore, because of the ravages of cancer. When you lose them. That’s probably the hardest.”

The ability to see his patients go through a huge transformation and become independent again, however, makes it all worthwhile.

When somebody comes in here, it’s like Christmas or a birthday. When they come in here to get their device, it’s a very special day. If things go well, Santa came. If things didn’t go well, the Grinch showed up. We try to make sure Santa comes regularly.