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Guest: Celebrating the life of Ponseti

BY PAUL ETRE - GUEST OPINION | FEBRUARY 03, 2010 7:30 AM

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Babies from around the world expressed their gratitude to Dr. Ignacio Ponseti by smiling, laughing, and giggling. Little did they realize that because of the Ponseti Method for the treatment of clubfoot, they were saved from a crippling disorder that would have prevented them from leading normal and healthy lives.

Their feet that were so mangled at birth that they looked like golf clubs have been painlessly corrected to normalcy by a series of casts and braces that spared them the unpredictable outcome of surgical intervention.

Since arriving in Iowa City in 1940, Ponseti’s passion was to develop a safe and reliable method to correct clubfeet. The son of a watchmaker in the Spanish island of Majorca, Ponseti at age 8 was taught by his father the art of watchmaking. This skill, which demanded extreme detail and intricacy, helped Ponseti in understanding the complex anatomy of the foot.

At this time, surgery was the preferred method for the treatment of clubfoot. However, the results were often unpredictable. If surgery was unsuccessful, the patient risked being crippled for life.

Ponseti devoted his early years in practice in the late-40s and ’50s to perfecting his method of casting the defective foot and gently manipulating the ligaments into the correct position by the application of several casts.

The medical and surgical community remained unconvinced that the Ponseti Method was the preferred treatment. Being at Iowa, Ponseti was able to conduct long-term outcome studies that showed that after decades, his patients continued to enjoy corrected and normal feet.

Ponseti led a one-person campaign to propagate his treatment method to the community of surgeons. But the UI’s mandatory retirement policy forced him to retire in 1984.

When the mandatory retirement policy was abolished, Ponseti was eager to return to work in 1986 with renewed zeal. He was 72 years old. He continued to treat babies and refine his method.

Ponseti’s crusade was augmented by the publishing of his book, Congenital Clubfoot: Fundamentals of Treatment, in 1996. But what sparked his crusade was the advent of the Internet in the early 1990s. A Ponseti website was created, which generated other websites and support groups organized by the families of Ponseti’s grateful patients.

Any mother from any place in the world who Googled “clubfoot” viewed scores of websites bearing the Ponseti name. The mothers insisted that their local doctors utilize the Ponseti Method and put pressure on these doctors to come to Iowa City and learn the method from the master.

Suddenly, a revolution was born. Originating at the University of Iowa, it was inspired by Ponseti and promoted by a newly formed Ponseti army consisting of hundreds of zealous mothers who were convinced of the efficacy and success of the Ponseti Method. The motto of the revolution became: “Surgery NO. Ponseti Method YES.”

Until the age of 95, Dr. Ponseti tirelessly continued to treat hundreds of babies and train an equal number of physicians and health-care providers. The Ponseti Method is now practiced in all the countries of the world and has been officially accepted by the community of surgeons. The UI pediatric orthopaedic surgeons carry the legacy of Ponseti by traveling overseas, training international doctors, and ensuring that every child inflicted with the clubfoot deformity has the opportunity to be made whole by the Ponseti Method.

Paul Etre is the administrator of the orthopaedics and rehabilitation department at the UI Hospitals and Clinics. He will speak today at Congregational Church on “The Ponseti Legacy.”


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