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November 1998

Alex Campanella’s House of Miracles

 

by Maria SCRIVANI

Unless you or someone you know has had need of a supportive device for a malfunctioning body part or a device to replace something that’s missing, you may have no idea of what goes on in a place called Campanella Orthotics and Prosthetics, Inc. The building, on a quiet block of Buffalo’s Linwood Avenue, is an office, a clinic, a laboratory, a high-tech workroom and a factory where the products turned out every day are nothing short of miracles. The chief miracle worker is Alex

Campanella—a man whose unassuming demeanor belies his formidable skill and vision.

“I had dreams of this,” said the Buffalo native, sitting in his office one recent morning. The staff of eight includes Ursula, his wife of 44 years, a former custom dressmaker who now does counseling and precision fitting of devices for mastectomy patients. She is joined by Diana, a board-eligible orthotist and Marietta Lipomi, a board-certified prosthetist. The lab was just granted a three-year accreditation, the highest level available in this profession, by the American Board for Certification in Orthotics and Prosthetics, Inc. (ABC).

The son of Sicilian immigrants, Alex Campanella has a life story that is quintessentially an American success story. It is also universally human in its philosophy that the greatest satisfaction comes from helping others.

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Alex’s father and mother—Mario and Concetta Campanella, 1920.

As a boy Alex apprenticed to his sister’s fiancÚ, who owned a shoe-repair business on Buffalo’s West Side. By age 15 he was proficient enough to be hired by the Standard Shoe Repair Company—an operation with four branch stores. A shortage of shoe repairmen during World War II was Alex’s good fortune. He quickly advanced to manager of the West Eagle branch.

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Alex and his father in 1930.

Alex and his trombone at age 3.

Following the death of his beloved mother in 1948 (his father had died when he was a boy of 9), Alex took a leave of absence from his job and moved to Italy for six months. It was a sort of busman’s holiday for the lad. In his family’s hometown of Montedoro, Sicily he apprenticed to a friend who operated a custom shoe manufacturing business and was willing to share secrets of Italian shoe design.

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Alex’s First Communion, 1936.

Alex in 1939.

In 1949 Alex returned to Buffalo and resumed his job with Standard until joining the Air Force at age 19. He served in Germany until 1952. Upon his discharge he was hired by the European Exchange System (Army P.X.) as Services Supervisor in Nuremberg. Later he was assigned to the Heidelberg Post Exchange. There he met Ursula Dennig, marrying her in 1955. In 1958, eight months after the birth of their daughter, the Campanellas returned to the U.S.

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Alex in the Army, 1949.

Alex had, through those years abroad, corresponded regularly with his siblings back home—Caroline (Kay), who died in 1995 and his brother Epifanio, a retired musician who still lives in Buffalo. “My brother Epi and I played a chess game by mail that lasted my entire tour and was finally completed when I arrived at his home in January, 1958,” recalls Alex. “Epi won.”

That last bit displays the self-deprecating Campanella humor. Asked which languages he speaks Alex says, “German, Italian and a little bit of English.” When showing visitors the impressive workroom where artificial limbs are made to order he’s likely to joke, lessening their anxiety with humor. But in the clinic where he and the staff see children, many of them scoliosis patients being fitted for body braces, he grows serious again. The walls are lined with rainbow-colored drawings and childish scrawls “To Alex.” “They’re thank-you notes,” he says quietly. “I never get tired of helping kids.”

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Alex and his lovely bride Ursula, 1955.

Alex, Ursula and daughter Diana
disembarking the USS United States in 1958 .

How he got to this place was, curiously enough, a natural offshoot of the shoe-repair path he’d chosen earlier in life. When he returned stateside, following the years abroad, he went to work for Tru-Mold Shoes—founded by Dr. Eugene Schultz—to make prescription shoes for the accommodation of various foot deformities. In 1960 he was hired by Children’s Hospital as a technician in what was then the Wykoff Brace Department, where he fabricated braces for infants, children and adolescents as well as some adult post-polio patients. In 1972 manager John Congelli retired and Alex was appointed department head.

Never one to let grass grow under his feet, he soon signed on for short-term courses in orthotics at New York University and Northwestern University, attaining ABC certification in orthotics in 1976. Under his supervision the Children’s Hospital Orthotics Department grew from a two-man operation to a five-person revenue-producing department. He was also spending evenings and weekends making custom-molded shoes in his home for patients with special foot problems.

In 1987 Alex Campanella left Children’s to start his own business on Linwood Avenue where custom-made braces and artificial limbs are fabricated on site—ensuring both quality and timeliness. Most work is done by measuring or taking a plaster-of-paris mold of the limb or torso, from which a positive model is sculpted. The required device is molded over the sculptured model for a perfect fit.

“Patients are seen by appointment after being referred to our lab by their physicians or while they are in-patients at area hospitals,” Alex says. “Because our work is produced locally, turn-around time is shortened, which in turn tends to reduce the inpatient hospital period normally spent waiting for a device to be completed.” He and staff member Marietta Lipomi, who is ABC-certified in prosthetics, confer with physicians to formulate the optimum design for individual patients.

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Ursula, Alex and Diana in Waqshington, D.C., 1994.

While training and skill serve patients well, in the final analysis it is the compassion of Alex Campanella and his staff that makes for miracles. With acute insight into the human condition he manages to encourage both compliance and independence in the patients he assists.

“We have a conference and I explain that it’s a team effort. A young person with scoliosis may have to wear a brace 23 hours a day for a year, maybe a year and a half, to arrest the curvature of the spine. They need to understand what we’re doing and why,” he says. “People often come in here feeling devastated. They feel much better when they leave.”

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Alex performing his miracles.

For Alex Campanella each case is an individual puzzle to be solved. “I do like challenges,” he says. “I don’t shy away from things that are difficult—I look for them.” That extends to his personal life as well. In his free time Alex reads, paints in oils, hunts wild turkeys and makes wood furniture. “Right now my biggest challenge is crafting the doors on a cabinet I’m making at home,” he confides.

With a track record like his, you know that Alex Campanella will get those doors exactly right.

Maria Scrivani is a freelance writer.

 

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