Family, friends honor Ponseti

BY SAM LANE | DECEMBER 07, 2009 7:30 AM

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While riding in a taxi cab with wife Helena Ponseti and son Bill on a vacation to Spain, Ignacio Ponseti noticed the driver had an interesting name.

Ponseti, perhaps the UI’s most well-known medical professional, explained to the driver he had treated a patient with a similar name during the Spanish Civil War.

“Oh,” the driver remarked. “You must be Dr. Ponseti.”

Ponseti had helped the taxi driver’s father after he had been injured during combat.

This was just one of the memories shared on Sunday as hundreds gathered at the Coralville Marriott Hotel and Conference Center to celebrate the doctor who continues to gain worldwide recognition. Ponseti died on Oct. 18 at age 95.

Many attendees came from Iowa, where Ponseti practiced medicine for over 60 years, while others came from half a world away.

“This showed great support for a wonderful man,” said Bill Ponseti, the doctor’s son. “Few people have the chance to affect something that heavily.”

Ponseti, a UI professor emeritus, was known for his groundbreaking treatment of a congenital disease called clubfoot. With this disease, newborns’ feet are turned inwards and, if gone untreated, may cause the child to walk with the sides of her or his feet.

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“The Ponseti Method,” a non-surgical treatment which the doctor developed in the 1940s, involves a careful stretching and casting of the foot in order to make it normal.

Sunday’s event featured speeches from a number of Ponseti’s peers, friends, and family.

Reginald Cooper, one of Ponseti’s students and an eventual colleague, was the first to talk and spoke fondly about his memories of time spent with the pioneer doctor.

“His dedication to teaching and impeccable care consumed a major portion of his life,” Cooper said.

After the ceremony ended, the attendees gathered outside the ballroom to pay their respects to the Ponseti family and reminisce over the doctor’s kind spirit and immeasurable impact.

“It’s hard to know where to begin and where to end,” said Monte Schwartz, a Bettendorf man whose three-and-a-half-year-old daughter Gianna was treated for clubfoot using the Ponseti method. “We don’t know where [our daughter] would be without him.”

In addition to those from Iowa and patients treated with the Ponseti method, doctors from around the world gathered to honor a figure who drove their own work.

“I feel like I owe him a lot,” said Amnuay Jirasirikul, a pediatric orthopedist who came from Thailand for the memorial. “All of my patients have healed beautifully using the method.”

Paul Etre, the UI Hospitals and Clinics orthopaedics administrator and one of Ponseti’s closest friends, recalled memories of his time with the doctor.

Etre said he introduced Ponseti to the world of pop music. His favorite song was Tom Jones’ “Impossible Dream,” something Etre said might as well be called “Ignacio Ponseti personified.”

On Sunday, the upbeat sound of violin strings echoed through the conference center — a fitting tribute to a man who truly loved both music and medicine.

“We were blessed with a unique man who brings us together,” Etre said. “He was sublime, humble and his goals were simple: He wanted people to become free of disease and illness. We love him for that.”

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