Restored parts, restructured lives

by Setsuko Kamiya

Some things just cannot be replaced once they are lost.

Imagine if what you lost was a part of your body. If losing your teeth or hair seems bad enough, some people have it even worse — those whose body parts have been severed in an accident or amputated.

People who have lost a limb or other body part have had their lives altered forever, both physically and mentally.

Prostheses — artificial body parts — can help patients by easing their trauma, alleviating their disability, and making them feel comfortable with their bodies again.

Tetsuo Takizawa plays a big role in making this happen, but he’s no doctor. He’s a “medical artist,” a person who designs and makes artificial body parts. As president of Meditech, a small firm in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, Takizawa works one-on-one with patients to make near-perfect silicon re-creations of missing body parts. Meditech’s prostheses aren’t geared toward practical uses as are artificial replacements that simulate the movements of the lost part, but they look so natural that it is hard to distinguish them from the real thing.

Unlike some medical artists who use computers to model the body part to be replaced, Takizawa’s approach is to closely study the patient’s opposite part, and then create the prosthesis. “Every body has different characteristics and colors, and we need to have a keen eye to observe these — and the skill to express what we have observed,” Takizawa says.

At present, roughly half of Meditech’s patients come to have lost fingers “recovered,” while another 40 percent are women who have lost a breast to cancer.

“Patients who come to us often express their unease with others recognizing their deformity,” Takizawa says, adding that “though most women say they came for silicon breasts because they want to be confident about going to onsen with friends, I feel it’s also because of their own strong desire to at least obtain a substitute for what they’ve lost.”

To create their substitutes, Meditech’s experts first take precise measurements of the body to which the prosthesis is to be attached, and make a plaster cast of it. The missing body part is sculpted in clay, and then molded in wax. Finally silicon is poured into the mold to make the prosthesis, which is attached using a special medical glue sometimes backed up by surgically positioned clips.

According to Takizawa, it normally takes four to six weeks to make a finger, two to three months to make a breast, and about six months to make parts of the face or ears. After that, with careful use, the prosthesis should last for decades.

Currently, a silicon finger costs between 150,000 yen and 300,000 yen, and a breast between 350,000 yen and 700,000 yen. Although Takizawa admits that it is expensive, he explains that the high price is largely due to the cost of the special medical silicon, which has to be imported from Britain or the United States.

In spite of the indisputable benefit of prostheses to patients’ mental well-being, and the fact that some orthopedists recommend these prostheses for their patients’ rehabilitation, Takizawa says that Japan’s national health insurance system won’t cover the cost — on the grounds that they are not “a recognized medical treatment.”

Nonetheless, he says, it is his patients’ smiles when they are first fitted with their “revitalized” body part that encourages him and his team to go on. “I’m not a doctor, nor have I received medical education, but even someone like me can really help people,” he says.