BENKELMAN, Neb.- A man from Benkelman who lost part of his leg to cancer, is using his experience to make leg braces for dogs.
"The company's name is Hero," business owner Ben Blecha said. "We make dog braces. They are all custom made to each dog. There are 200,000 dogs a year that tear their ACL, kind of like an athlete would. We make braces to support the ones that can't have surgery."
Blecha says there are only about 4 or 5 businesses in the world that do this type of work. "When I grew up, I had bone cancer," Blecha said. "I grew up here in Benkelman, and I had bone cancer in my knee. I went through 8 or 9 years of trying to save my leg. We did all of these different surgeries at Creighton Medical Center in Omaha." In the end, doctors were not able to save a part of Ben's leg, but during the process he had several braces made. Through that, he ended up going to prosthetics school. "My training is actually learning how to make prosthetics for humans. So, I can make braces and artificial limbs for humans."
During some time working in Denver, Blecha connected with his uncle who is a veterinarian in McCook. His uncle connected him with a doctor in Denver that was working with the TV show Animal Planet, and at that point, Blecha started making braces for dogs. Blecha says he then moved back to his hometown, and his business is now booming, where he fits hundreds of dogs now.
Blecha says he works hard to make the brace custom to each dog. "We send a kit to a dog owner, and it has casting material. A veterinarian can wrap a cast of that dog's leg. They send the cast back to us, and we fill it with plaster. At that point, we have a model of that leg," Blecha said. "We take big sheets of plastic, heat them up in an oven, and then when they are soft, we drape the plastic over the plaster model of the leg. A vacuum then sucks the air out, and the plastic is sucked down to the leg shape. When the plastic cools, it's the shape of the dog." Blecha then cuts out the plastic, makes it smooth, and adds straps and padding.
"In human medicine, we have insurance," Blecha said. "If we tear an ACL, insurance will help pay for surgery. But in veterinary medicine you have to make choices. Surgery may be thousands of dollars, so we can support the leg with a brace to avoid surgery." The brace idea is also a good option for dogs who are older and may not survive a surgery.