“Look, your braces matches your shirt,” he says while kneeling eye level with a five- year-old patient named Ellie. He is holding a pair of plastic feet braces specially designed for her, like white Cinderella slippers with a pattern of purple butterflies. He turns to Ellie's parents, forcing her Dora the Explorer Velcro-tabbed shoes over the newly adjusted plastic, “You might want to get her a larger pair,” he suggests.
Mom and Dad agree with Tlumacki without a moment’s hesitation. They have been down these hallways before.
Patient Rhonda looks forward to her every visit. Her husband is upset when he can’t come along too. Rhonda, 64, cannot remember life without polio. She cannot walk on the beach. She cannot play any sports. She lives vicariously through her athletic children. She uses a cane and can only move slowly. Surrounded by the artificial world of plastics and prosthetics, Tlumacki is concerned with the real people like her. Rhonda has been seeing Tlumacki every three to six months for longer than she can remember.
Over time their meetings became more like chat sessions than check-ups. Rhonda first walked into MGH at 27 years old, pregnant, and wearing Forrest Gump-like metal braces. She became the poster child for the latest bracing techniques. At the time, Tlumacki was only 20 years old. Today, decades later, Rhonda won’t see anyone else. Tlumacki takes care of her, offering to rearrange his schedule to accommodate her visits.
“I cannot walk without the brace,” she says. “I still managed to raise two kids and they had a lot they had to do on their own. They couldn’t run because I couldn’t chase them, and they knew it.”
Tlumacki saved Rhonda's leg by referring her to a surgeon who said yes when all others said there was nothing they could do. “Every time I go in there, I try to bring him a bottle of wine,” she says. “He keeps threatening to retire, but he can’t. He just can’t. I couldn’t survive without him.”