On Friday afternoon, Raymond Gilligan was in his fabrication shop, which is in the back of his office on Industrial Avenue, holding up a prosthetic leg.
“Back in the day, people wanted a normal-looking leg,” Gilligan said. “Now they don’t want them like that, they want this stuff, they want Trump, the flag.”
The leg he was holding was decorated in a Trump/Pence 2020 campaign cover. He explained that the leg is made from carbon fiber — which is far lighter and more durable than the plastic that was used to make prosthetics in the past — and is custom-made to fit the client. His clients often have very active professions, from snow removal to mechanics.
“This one hooks up to a computer leg,” Gilligan said, noting that as another modern element to prosthetics, a field that is forever evolving.
Gilligan is the owner of Alaska Prosthetics and Orthotics, a company he said has been around for eight years, and which was originally operated out of his garage. Gilligan didn’t want to explain to me what he does; he wanted to show me. He pulled up a video on his phone. The guy in the video had two prosthetic legs and was walking around the parking lot with a totally natural gait, sporting a large grin.
“This kid couldn’t afford to come to town, so I went out to Moose Creek and did a test,” he said. “If he had long pants on you wouldn’t even be able to tell. I had him riding bikes, going up and down stairs.”
“I don’t just build them. I take them through the whole thing,” he continued. “I walk them through the parallel bars. I fine tune everything as we go along. That’s what I love to do, is the alignment portion.”
Gilligan has been making prosthetics since 1992. After earning qualifications from Spokane Falls Community College and the University of Washington, he took a job in Anchorage at a firm called Alaska Orthopedics. At the time, Gilligan said, there wasn’t an orthotic practitioner in Fairbanks, so the owner would travel up from Anchorage twice a month.
“It’s not just building it for them.” he said. “We keep a good inventory here of stuff like feet, so if somebody has an issue we can fix them right away.”
Gilligan’s interest in prosthetics comes from a youth spent with a cousin who was missing a leg.
“He had a lawnmower accident and cut his leg off. Then it got infected, so he lost it up here,” Gilligan said. “Our whole lives, he ran in baseball with one leg. It just amazed me what he could do and that kind of had my attention my whole life.”
Gilligan said this experience normalized the whole field for him. He pointed out that he uses a prosthetic arm as a doorbell to let him know when customers walk into his shop, and that it occasionally “creeps people out.”
“That scares people. Sometimes people say, ‘man, that’s the first prosthetic I’ve seen in my life’,” he said. “To me that’s weird, because I grew up being around them.”
Originally from Washington state, Gilligan joined the U.S. Army in 1974, and ended up stationed at Fort Wainwright in 1979. Back then, he was married with three kids, but the amount of time he was spending away from home put strain on the relationship. He left the Army in 1984.
“The day I got out of the Army up here, I went down to the unemployment office. … I was on my way up to the Slope the next morning,” he said. “(My wife) didn’t like that at all, man. She ended up divorcing me.”
Gilligan said working on the North Slope, he saw a number of people lose limbs and kept thinking about prosthetics. When he got injured on the job, he was offered financial compensation and decided it was time to go to school.
Gilligan doesn’t just make prosthetics; he also makes things like braces for injured knees and backs, and custom insoles. He said he can read a sole like a book, and from there, figure out what kind of alignment will work for a person.
“I do boat lifts, shoe lifts — whatever people need, I do it right here in town,” he said. “I can custom make anything.”
The process begins with a completely healed residual limb. If there’s any swelling, Gilligan will give the client a stump shrinker to wear over night, before he starts. The next step is a plaster-cast of whichever part of the body needs attention.
“When I’m casting you and doing all this, I’m getting your alignment focused up for actually building your leg — how everything is: your shoulders, your hips and your knee if you’ve got a knee,” he said. “Every step has to be perfect. If you don’t do every step perfect, your final product ain’t gonna be perfect.”
Then Gilligan will make a plastic test socket. The client will come and try the test socket in different situations, like standing between the parallel bars. Gilligan said this can be a tough process for clients, as nerve endings fire off.
“When you first stand somebody up, you get a lot of quivering — their toe will quiver, their shoulder will quiver,” Gilligan said. “But if you do this right, the distal (end) of the stump won’t touch anything in the socket.”
The weight of the residual limb is supported by the sides of the socket in a precise way to mitigate nerve fire-up. Once the test socket is adjusted to the individual, Gilligan makes the entire new limb from scratch. Gilligan describes the process as “pretty personal.”
“When I’m casting I gotta feel up in there, I gotta feel where your pelvic bone is. I need to know every single part,” he said. “You get pretty personal with this stuff. It’s right down to the nitty gritty.”
But it goes beyond just physical proximity; there is an emotional intensity to helping people to walk again or to conquer chronic pain. Gilligan takes the time to really understand his clients’ needs. The result has the potential to be life-changing.
“A lot of people come in here and they’ve been in wheelchairs for a long time, because they’ve had (prosthetic) legs that didn’t fit right or caused more pain, so they just didn’t wear them,” he said. “Pretty much everybody who comes in here, they wear this stuff.”
Gilligan said this is the main impetus: helping the community.
“I like to work with people,” he said. “When I can hook you up with a leg and you can walk out of here, words don’t describe how that feels.”
Contact staff writer Alistair Gardiner at 459-7575. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.