Beyond the Call: Jon Erdmann, Sierra Prosthetics and Orthotics
Jon Erdmann has put thousands of injured people back on their feet around the world.
A certified prosthetist, Erdmann has made more than 5,000 artificial legs in the U.S., Africa and Southeast Asia. And he has trained dozens of other people to do the same.
Erdmann’s career — first spurred when he viewed “The Terminator” in 1985 — has carried him through three eras in the design of artificial limbs and orthotics. “I got started in the early ’80s when I was 18. The technology was still the same that we were using post Vietnam,” he said.
It was largely through NASA’s Space Shuttle program that the prosthetics field picked up new uses for materials such as carbon fiber, epoxy, Kevlar, and nylon-fiberglass. That introduced the era of lightweight prostheses.
Then came a technological revolution. Thanks to small processors developed for iPhones and similar devices, the light materials were outfitted with servomotors powered by lithium batteries.
“We were able to come up with computerized arms and knees and come up with something radically different,” Erdmann said.
Despite the technological advances, each prosthesis must be custom-fit to the patient. And that can be the most tricky part of all.
“If the prosthesis doesn’t fit correctly and it hurts, nobody is going to use it. Nobody is going to inflict that little bit of pain each time they take a step,” said Erdmann, who heads up Erdmann Prosthetics and Orthotics in Roseville.
Howard Davis, who worked alongside Erdmann about 10 years ago and now runs his own prosthetics and orthotics company in Richmond, applauded Erdmann’s dedication and passion.
“You have to be a sculptor, a tailor and wear lots of different hats. Jon has always been a real hands-on type of guy. He doesn’t like to just see the patient and let somebody else do the work,” Davis said. “I’d say he’s more passionate about his job than most.”
That passion has generated a lot of appreciation among those he works with.
“He goes above and beyond in terms of being an advocate for his patients,” said physical therapist Bonnie Jenkins-Close, who works at the Sutter Rehabilitation Institute at Sutter Roseville Medical Center. “If he has to deliver something on the weekend, he does. He has been able to see some of my patients at their homes. It’s accommodating the patient’s needs.”
Erdmann’s career has kept him on the move. It started at Shriners Hospital for Children in St. Louis. He did a year in Vietnam under the auspices of Sen. Patrick Leahy’s War Victims Fund. On his return, he was asked to head the Shriners prosthetic department in Sacramento.
In late 2000 he went back to Vietnam, this time for a British group, and later was recruited by the International Committee of the Red Cross to work for them in Ethiopia and Angola.
All the time overseas — about 10 years in all — took its toll. “It’s 24 hours every day of high-level stress. Sights, sounds, your health. You never find a place to relax when you are doing that kind of work,” Erdman said.
“I’ve had malaria four times,” he added. “I’ve had dengue fever. In Angola, the entire town (I was in) was surrounded by (land) mines for miles and miles. The only way to get into the town was to fly in, and the airplane came only once a week. You are very isolated when you are doing that kind of work, mentally and physically.”
After returning to the Sacramento area several years ago, Erdmann started working with a number of companies involved with prosthetics. That included Sierra Prosthetics and Orthotics in Grass Valley, founded by Todd Bullock. Turns out that Erdmann wanted to set up an office in Roseville to better serve patients at the Sutter Rehabilitation Institute. And Bullock wanted to expand from his Grass Valley base. It seemed like a good fit.
And making a good fit has always been one of Erdmann’s specialties.