Clubfoot: The Quest for a Better Life for Millions of Children

New Book Chronicles Legendary Iowa Doctor

The “truly remarkable life story of Dr. Ignacio Ponseti (1914-2009) and his continuing impact on the lives of children around the world.” That’s how Tom Brokaw, the renowned journalist, broadcaster, and author, describes the new book, Clubfoot: The Quest for a Better Life for Millions of Children. Brokaw goes on to describe Dr. Ponseti as “God’s gift to these children.”

The book’s author is Professor Emeritus Thomas Cook from the University of Iowa where he is the Senior Advisor for the Ponseti International Association. Cook is a physical therapist, biomedical engineer, and global health specialist who first met Dr. Ponseti in 1992. His book addresses three major questions. Who was Dr. Ignacio Ponseti? What is the treatment he developed? How successful is his quest for a world without disability from clubfoot?

Although it is highly unusual to see individuals in the U.S. or other highly developed countries trying to walk on the sides or tops of their feet, which are sometimes also pointing sideways or even backwards, clubfoot remains the world’s most common skeletal birth defect. It is present in some 200,000 newborns every year and occurs in every country around the globe, including the U.S.

Cook describes how young Dr. Ponseti, after becoming entangled in the Spanish Civil War and being forced into exile in France and then Mexico, found a home in Iowa in 1941. He soon discovered that surgery to correct clubfoot in infants often results in arthritis, pain, and serious disability later in life. He was determined to develop a non-invasive alternative for correcting this crippling deformity. Dr. Ponseti began a life-long quest to reshape the lives of children born with clubfoot from lives of pain and disability to those of hope and promise without surgery, despite strong opposition from the broader medical establishment.

The personal experience of Arlene Humble is one of several described in the book. Arlene was born a “clubfoot baby” in the late 1950’s in Ossian, Iowa, where no one had ever heard of clubfoot. The local physician thought she would never walk normally.

Arlene’s parents soon made their way to the Children’s Hospital in Iowa City. Over the next six weeks Dr. Ponseti completely reshaped Arlene’s feet using a series of gentle manipulations followed by the application of precisely molded plaster casts, each one holding baby Arlene’s feet in a more normal alignment. The treatment has been described as “orthodontics for the foot.”

Arlene then wore a special brace while napping and sleeping until she was four years old to prevent return of the deformity. Cook explains that a clubfoot brace is analogous to a retainer used in orthodontics. Arlene’s siblings remember that the brace caused dents in the wall when she rolled over in her bed.

During her childhood and adolescence, Arlene was as active and healthy as her peers and siblings. Today she is Vice President of Humble Travel in Cedar Falls and has been active on the boards of several community organizations. Ironically, one of Arlene’s daughters is a nurse practitioner in the Orthopaedics Department where Dr. Ponseti developed the treatment method that gave her mother the opportunity for a normal life.

While children from Iowa and surrounding states, like Arlene, benefited from the skilled manipulations that Dr. Ponseti used to painlessly straighten their tiny feet, physicians elsewhere continued to discount Dr. Ponseti’s method for nearly fifty years.

Finally, by the late 1990’s, parents began searching the Internet for the best way to correct their child’s deformity and discovered the Ponseti Method. They soon forced the medical establishment to recognize the genius of this humble immigrant doctor from Iowa.

Although Dr. Ponseti’s treatment is now accepted by professional societies around the world as the “gold standard” for correcting clubfoot, Cook reports that many children continue to undergo surgery while tens of thousands in low-resource countries still lack access to a treatment provider who is skilled in the Ponseti Method.

The Ponseti Clubfoot Treatment and Research Center at the University of Iowa is directed by Dr. Jose Morcuende, Dr. Ponseti’s successor. It draws more than a hundred patients from around the country and around the world every year. Dr. Morcuende also mentors a continuing stream of visiting doctors who come to learn the Ponseti Method firsthand from him, as they did from Dr. Ponseti.

Iowa is the home of the Ponseti International Association and the Rotarian Action Group for Clubfoot, two organizations that actively support the training of healthcare practitioners to rigorously apply the treatment method Dr. Ponseti developed so many years ago.

Cook says he wrote the book because the story of Dr. Ponseti’s life and his unfinished quest for a world without disability from clubfoot “just has to be told.” He added that Dr. Ponseti’s treatment method is referred to by many as “Iowa’s Gift to the World.”

Buy the book now! All copies will be autographed by the book’s author, Dr. Thomas Cook.