Rural Success Stories
Rural Success Stories
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Busy Benkelman prosthetist is literally giving area a leg to stand on
by Gene O. Morris
As a skilled maker of orthotic and prosthetic devices, Ben Blecha had a decision to make: Should he live and work for a major company in a large metropolitan area — such as Chicago, Kansas City or Denver — or should he move back to his hometown of 1,000 population in the middle of America?
Ben chose to come home and — from the standpoints of quality of life and service to humanity — he is both convinced and grateful he made the right decision.
He established his business, Sky Prosthetics, in Benkelman, Neb. three years ago. The firm provides counseling, treatment and devices for those in need of braces, orthotic support and artificial limbs. It hasn't been easy, but through innovation and outreach, Ben has built a strong foundation for business success.
Devices for pets, too.
"My core business is serving specialty clinics at hospitals in the Tri-State Region, but I am also in association with a Benkelman chiropractor, Dr. Jason Mathews, in the production of hand-crafted orthotic devices," Ben said. Blecha's range of services doesn't end there. He also creates foot and leg braces for dogs through special orders from veterinary clinics.
As busy as he is, the Benkelman orthotist and prosthetist still takes time to provide life-changing limbs for the people of Guatemala and the Dominican Republic. Through his personal travels and his association with Physicians for Peace, he is a leader of the "Walking Free Guatemala" project. One of his treasured photographs commemorates a meeting he had with former Guatemala First Lady, Wendy Berger, in 2006, along with other representatives of Physicians for Peace, the Chief of Orthopedics at the National Rehabilitation Hospital and the Chief Prosthetist at Walter Reed Hospital.
What inspired Ben Blecha to return to Benkelman and then reach out to those in need in foreign lands is, like many life stories, not a straight path.
"When I first conceived the Sky Prosthetics' business model, I was working for a firm in the Denver metro area," Ben said. "My first thought was to launch the business in Longmont, north of Denver, but I ran into two hurdles. For one thing, there were already practicing prosthetists and orthotists in that region, and, in the second place, I found that I had a binding non-compete agreement with my employer."
Greeted with open arms.
Determined to launch his own enterprise, Ben started thinking of ways to make Sky Prosthetics work in the town he knew and loved: Benkelman.
"I was greeted with open arms," he said. "Every source I turned to — the bank, the economic development board, the chamber, the accountant and surrounding hospitals — did every thing they could to help. It made me glad I came home. They not only wanted me; they needed me. While there were lots of prosthetists and orthotists on the front range in Colorado, there was not a single CPO (Certified Prosthetist-Orthotist) for 100 miles in every direction from Benkelman."
To make his business work, Ben established prosthetic and orthotic specialty clinics at three hospitals in the tri-state region: Community Hospital in McCook, Neb.; Citizens Medical Center in Colby, Kan.; and Yuma County Hospital in Yuma, Colo.
"It was slow starting out, but once the word started circulating about my work with braces, orthotic devices and artificial limbs, the number of people I serve has been on the increase," the area's only CPO said.
The main thing Ben has had to overcome is the tendency of many people in rural areas to head to the city when they need specialized medical care. But, when he's given a chance, Ben can show those in need of prostheses and orthoses that he is as skilled as any specialist anywhere.
A personal connection.
"I'm an amputee myself," Ben explains. "I developed bone cancer when I was in high school, and had my right leg amputated during my college years. The device I was fitted with never did work right. It caused bleeding and sores and there was always pain. That's when I decided to dedicate myself to doing it better."
So, after five years as an engineering and education student, Ben changed course, enrolling in the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. The school is regarded as one of the best centers in the nation for training prosthetists and orthotists.
After intensive training there, Ben went on to serve residencies with a children's hospital in Greenville, S.C. and with a large company in Kansas City, Mo. While with the corporation in K.C., he was offered a transfer to Chicago for a six-figure salary. But wanting to stay closer to home, Ben took a job in the Denver area before following his heart and starting his own business in Benkelman.
The rural allure.
"People in cities talk about always having something to do, like going to the ballet. But, you know what, since moving back to Benkelman I've been busy all the time. There's my work, plus I'm active in Jaycees, Sons of the Legion and the Chamber of Commerce. I don't have to fight an hour or more of city traffic every day, and — if I do want to go to the ballet — Denver is only three hours away."
The Good Life? In Ben Blecha's opinion, it starts in Benkelman, Neb. and can reach as far as serving the orthotic and prosthetic needs of the people of Guatemala and the Dominican Republic.
Ben came home ... and he's glad he did.
Who To Contact...
Sky Prosthetics, Inc.
Ben Blecha, Owner
503 Chief St.
Benkelman, NE 69021
Telephone: (866) 832-1269