Prosthetist finds spiritual fulfillment at medical missions

COLUMBIA — Larry Wiley has given dozens of people in Guatemala a new lease on life by giving them new limbs.

Wiley, a mechanical engineer and certified prosthetist, has visited the country on four medical mission trips with Deacon Ed Peitler, director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Charleston. Deacon Peitler and other volunteers from the diocese have made the trips since fall 2006 to help people with medical needs in the parishes of San Pedro and San Pablo, he said.

On his most recent trip Oct. 12-19, Wiley made a new hand for a man who lost his in a machete accident and provided a new arm and hand for a woman with a genetic disorder.

Wiley is a member of St. Theresa the Little Flower Church in Summerville. He said he goes on medical mission trips to help people who have lost limbs and to be a witness for Jesus Christ.

He said giving people new, state-of-the-art limbs is special because many poor amputees in Guatemala often have to deal with whatever they can get.

“I think I could give them a stick with a bucket on the bottom and some of them would be happy to have something,” he said. “We learned at one time a company had gone over there and given out donated legs, but there was no rhyme or reason to what people got. They just handed them a leg out of the bag.”

Wiley was born into a military family and grew up in Orlando. He served for 21 years in the U.S. Air Force, where he was a munitions specialist and  mechanical engineer. He said he toiled on everything from cluster bombs to anti-personnel devices. Wiley was introduced to prosthetics in 1991 when he worked on prosthetic vision devices and other projects through a Brooke Army Medical Center program.

While there, he joined a bio dy nam ics lab and studied kinesiology, which is the science of human movement. He also pursued graduate studies at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. One of his professors suggested he learn more about prosthetics, and eventually he studied at the Prosthetic Center of Northwestern University Medical School. He was certified as a prosthetist in 1997.

Wiley’s first experience working overseas came on a 1999 trip to Bosnia with other medical professionals from the Charleston area. He said helping people who were injured in the Bosnian war during the early 1990s helped him address spiritual conflicts that he developed when he helped make  weapons.

“It always bothered me as a Christian that we made these devices and people were losing their limbs because of them,” Wiley said. “I think God put me in that job to appreciate my current job, and realize that in third world situations and even countries as modernized as Bosnia, these atrocities still exist.”

After retiring from the Air Force, Wiley moved to Charleston, where his wife Annette was raised. Since 1997, he has worked at Floyd Brace Company in Charleston.

Wiley said he decided to go on his first medical mission trip with the diocese in the fall of 2006 when he saw a call for volunteers in The Miscellany. He was helping a difficult patient and said he needed something to renew himself spiritually.

He returned from the first trip with molds for new legs that people needed within a few weeks. He consulted with a physical therapist who helped him with fittings, and used parts donated by families of deceased amputees to complete the limbs.

Wiley built braces for needy children on his next two trips. His mid-October visit this year brought him the most clients he has seen.

“This last time I went, people were coming out of the woodwork,” he said. “I’m sending a prosthetic foot over for one 16-year-old young man, and another man needed a new leg.”

He said he and his son, who recently started working with him, have designed an arm for a woman who was born with a genetic defect that only left her with two small fingers on one hand. He also built a prosthetic arm for the man who was injured with the machete.

“Most of the injuries we see are because of trauma — motor vehicle accidents or other accidents,” he said.

Wiley said the limbs he builds are made from titanium, aluminum, stainless steel, plastic and carbon lamination. He measures clients in Guate mala and takes molds, which he uses to fit the new limbs. He builds the prosthetics in Charleston and sends them back to Guatemala.

Deacon Peitler said the prosthetics can mean the difference between abject poverty and a decent life for the clients.

“Obviously he is making a significant contribution by enabling these people to earn what they can,” Deacon Peitler said. “Some of these people could otherwise end up on the streets homeless or not knowing where their next meal is coming from.

“He’s become one of the leaders of these medical missions. He’s really able to motivate people and help them to understand the value of these mission trips,” he said.

Wiley recognized the spiritual gifts that come from serving others and spreading the message of the Gospel through service when he made his first trip to Guatemala.

“I witnessed this growth in myself and I watched in amazement as each person became more like Jesus. It was a gift that God gave to me,” he said. “And it is a gift I have to share with others.

“When I go on these trips, I want to ‘jump start’ the experience for the others. I do not let one day go by without the realization that God is working in the life of the missionary in a great way.”