Three months ago a U.S. Marine from Maryland Heights (who stepped on an IED that blew off his right lower leg in Afghanistan) tested a prosthetic leg in the nearly 15-mile Bataan Memorial Death March held in New Mexico. Mark Meirink finished the march due to the work of St. Louis Certified Prosthetist Geoffrey Dunlap, a 1980 graduate of Mexico High School.
Dunlap, son of Kenny and Dee Dunlap of Laddonia, formerly of Mexico, said in high school he wasn't the class president or star football type, just "an average farm boy" with no inkling what he wanted to do in life.
"There was one kid in our class, who was 16 and lost his leg to cancer," Dunlap recalled in a recent interview with The Mexico Ledger. "That was the first time I ever thought about prosthetics, but never other than that."
Dunlap said it wasn't until 17 years later, after he lost his own leg following a motorcycle accident, that his interest in the field heightened. Prior to the accident he had worked numerous jobs – including production and food service – and considered himself "a jack of all trades, but master of none."
"I was pretty banged up, and didn't know what I was going to do," Dunlap explained. Aside from losing his leg, he also suffered extensive body and facial injuries, including a broken jaw.
"But after a very lengthy convalescent (6-8 months), I talked to people in the field about the business, and later got accepted into the Orthotics and Prosthetics program at California State University, and worked for a prosthetics company in Orange County."
After graduating from Cal State, Dunlap returned to Missouri in 2004 and went to work for a few months in Cape Girardeau before deciding to relocate to St. Louis, where he started working with the Standard Artificial Limb Company in Maryland Heights 10 years ago, helping amputees and active veterans.
Being an amputee himself, Dunlap said, helps in his profession. "It helps temper me as to how I felt when I was in their position. And that little perspective goes a long way."
"Sometimes you get attached to people when the prognosis is not good, and it's hard to separate your professional and personal feelings," Dunlap said. "But, knowing I was part of helping them live the life they want, is gratifying. I truly love my job."
Currently, there are more than 1.2 million amputees living in the United States, and more than 200,000 of them rely on prosthetics.
As for Meirink, Dunlap said the 23-year-old Marine had visited the Jefferson Barracks Clinic, "but decided to come to us for the type of prosthetic he wanted."
"Mark basically brought in an order from the veterans' administration to build a brand new below-the-knee prosthetic with a vacuum system … a pretty recent development in prosthetics," Dunlap said. "I have a mold to build a complete port and two-socket replacement. So I did the socket replacement, which is held on with a knee sleeve that he wears with a cushion liner and some thick ply socks. He then slips his leg into the socket and rolls the sleeve up onto his thigh.
Page 2 of 2 - Before going to Dunlap for the prosthetic, Meirink had a running leg made with a big J-frame foot, which is a long, curved blade.
The Bataan Memorial Death March is a challeng-ing march through the high desert terrain of New Mexico's White Sands Missile Range, conducted in honor of the heroic service members who defended the Philippine Islands during World War II, sacrificing their freedom, health and, in many cases, their lives. Participants have the choice between two routes – the Green 26.2-mile march or the Blue honorary route, which is 14.2 miles in length. Meirink chose the shorter march.
"He actually completed the race and did very well," Dunlap said. "Before he lost his leg, he liked running marathons with his cousin. After the accident, he wanted to get back into it. What's more phenomenal, he ran the race with a 35-pound backpack, which was awe-inspiring."
Dunlap said the young Marine is continuing to progress and become more active. He lives with his mother, cuts grass, takes care of all the building maintenance, and has run a couple of races since the Bataan March and is doing very well.
"Mark is the kind of patient you'd pay to get every day; someone getting back to their life before limb loss," Dunlap said. "It's great and very fulfilling to be able to get him to the point where he wants to be in his life.
"I'm glad to have been a part of that," Dunlap added.