DALLAS — A plaster cast is the start of a new right leg and foot for seven-year-old Nathaniel Milks, who lost his limb after a run-in with a lawn mower.
He wants a tattoo on the new leg, too. "Because I think it's cool," he said.
What's really cool is this: Hospitals typically send patients elsewhere for prosthetics. But at Scottish Rite Hospital in Dallas, plastic body parts are a specialty, hand-crafted on-site in a basement factory.
Dwight Putnam is a former commercial sculptor turned prosthetic Picasso.
"I think every day for every piece that I put out, for myself being a sculptor, I consider it to be a piece of art," he said.
Scottish Rite crafts nearly 500 custom-made prosthetic works of art annually, each with an eye to the unique needs of a child.
Prosthetists have concocted everything from an extra finger for a clarinet player; a paddle hand for swimming; a thumb to hold a violin; even an arched foot for a teenager who wanted to wear high-healed sandals.
"We've got varsity quarterbacks, we've got defensive linemen, we've got ballerinas, we've got actresses, we've got kids that ride motorcycles," Putnam said. "Basically everything you could think of for a kid to get into, we've got kids that are doing it inside of a prosthesis, which is amazing."
Making pediatric prosthesis is a labor of love and legs for Nathan Sutti, who knows what it's like to need a leg.
"I got into this job after I lost my leg in a motorcycle accident when I was 17," Sutti explained. "Understanding exactly what it feels to wear one — then to be able to fit somebody with a device — you can relate on a certain level. And then be able to use that in your fabrication and design technique to help them is the best gift anyone could ever ask for."
Robert Carlile was once a Scottish Rite patient himself. He lost his left leg as a child, and has worked at the hospital as a certified prosthetic technician for 28 years.
"Just having this kind of makes you realize what they're going through," Carlile said, "so that's kind of why I'm here. And I won't leave."
The Scottish Rite prosthetists consider this job a calling.
From casting to shaping, molding and finally fitting, the entire process takes about a month. Each piece is touched by about a dozen skilled hands.
The average cost of a prosthetic is $8,000 to $10,000. Each is made free of charge to patients.
And because kids will be kids, each one wears out in about 15 months.
"You've definitely delivered them a high-end sports car by the time they've graduated from this system at 18," Putnam said. "When they [the prosthetic] make it back at the end of 15 months, the prosthesis is completely shredded. And so you know at that point — when they come back like that — that you've done your job, and that the kid's gotten into everything that they want to get into. And so you're looking at this thing with the foot barely hanging on."
Nathaniel Milks, age seven, is on his fifth prosthetic leg. The new one has a blue skull tattoo on the shin.
For him, that's cool.
But the definition of "cool" is something different for Dwight Putnam and the other artists in the prosthetic department.
"To be able to have a patient run to you from across the waiting room who's been sitting in a wheelchair or crutches for the last eight months; to have the patient run — which is a big milestone in these kids — is tear-jerking to say the least," Putnam said.