Metro company making leg braces — and a difference — every step of the way

Special Reports

DES MOINES, Iowa – A little-known business in the metro is making a difference around the world. The owner went from fitting patients with leg braces to making them himself, and his design is changing lives.

Residents drive by a building off of McKinley Avenue every day and would be surprised to see what’s inside: busy hands, interesting figures, and an expert in the unique profession of orthotics, Noel Chladek.

“When I was a kid and I would work building braces in my dad’s lab, he always said that in order to build a brace for someone you have to understand what it’s going to do to the body,” Chladek said. “And so I learned a lot about the biomechanics, the engineering of a brace, and how it affected the biomechanics of somebody walking.”

It’s why Chladek started his company, Bio-Mechanical Composites, to make what he calls ‘PHAT Braces,’ or physically handicapped advanced technologies, with a system he developed.

“People around the country, practitioners and orthotists, work to just take a cast of their patient’s leg and make a negative model of the patient’s leg, and then they send that to us in order for us to have a model of the patient’s leg to build the brace to,” Chladek explained.

The casts are lined up to figure out the right height, angles, and rotations. They’re filled with plaster to create the model and then tweaked and modified to make sure the brace will fit precisely.

“I take a cast model of somebody’s leg and I have their leg in my hands and I’m going to build this brace designed for them,” Chladek said. “That brace should be perfect.”

Carbon fiber is laid down to create the design of the brace before it goes into this pressure vessel to cure, and then tested for durability.

The carbon-fiber structure finally goes to lamination where a resin is poured over it and you’re left “with a brace that has a soft, flexible shell that could open to put a patient into it. It’s also very heat moldable if any adjustments need to be made and then the carbon fiber structure is sandwiched inside of that so that it has the right resistance to be able to bend and spring back for the patient.”

A brace design Chladek came up with after wanting better for the patients he used to see at his own clinic.

“People didn’t like to have to wear a brace,” Chladek said. “I was always looking for something that had a higher function so that it wasn’t that it was good for someone to wear this or they could then walk again, but to actually get it to where they could walk normally and people couldn’t notice that they were wearing a brace.”

A clinic his brother ended up taking over so he could focus on his company, in a career path he grew up knowing but never wanted to be in.

“And then when I got out of the military I needed work and I went back into it and I found I was pretty good at it,” Chladek said. “And it was more rewarding to help somebody or make a difference for somebody than I could ever imagine, and it just kind of became what I do.”

In the two decades since Bio-Mechanical Composites began, his employees have made upwards of 30,000 braces that change how people walk.

A visual Chladek shows to practitioners across the country as he educates them on what his braces can do.

“I found this wow moment where we then set the patient down and take the brace off after walking 40-50 feet and the patient stands up and has trouble taking a step,” Chladek said. “And they start to realize how much that brace was just doing for them, and then they really want that brace. I’ve never in my life or in my career in orthotics, I’ve never seen anything that does that and that does that.”

Through the thousands that have put on one of his braces, Chladek can’t help but remember a young boy in Florida.

“I came out and he was running back and forth across the lobby, and his mom was crying because he had never run before,” Chladek recalls. “And so I was like, I wish I could get that in the class. That’s the thing to see. That’s the difference it makes for people.”

A difference that turned into a lifetime of devotion for Chladek, and what ended up being his true calling.

“What else would I do? I could build a building or build a house or build something that will last for a really long time, but changing someone’s life is everything.”

Chladek is always looking at ways to improve his braces for patients including making them more light-weight and is even working with the military to get injured soldiers back into battle faster.

If you’d like to learn more, you can visit the website: phatbraces.com

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