Standing up for disabled kids

December 09, 2011  

Octagon’s Mead Welles helps children with missing limbs live normal lives.

By Danielle Beurteaux  

  Mead Welles: I thought, "I can do something about that."
Mead Welles has seen a lot of suffering during his many travels. But one child he saw in Jakarta in 1997 changed his life.

During an exhausting multicountry tour when he was starting Octagon Asset Management, Welles — sleep deprived and feeling sorry for himself — saw a child with a deformed leg being pulled along on a garbage can lid. Welles had already thought of starting a not-for-profit, and this was his wake-up call. "It totally reenergized me," says Welles. "I thought, 'I can do something about that.’ "

And he did. Welles, 44, CEO and senior portfolio manager of Octagon, a small hedge fund in New York, started A Leg to Stand On with the help of a fortuitous meeting. He reconnected with a college friend at a wedding and met her father, Dinesh Patel, who is chief of arthroscopic surgery at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital and an associate clinical professor of orthopedic surgery at Harvard Medical School. "He told me, 'If you decide to pursue this, I’ll support you in any way that I can,’ " says Welles.

Patel had already set up a facility for orthopedic training at Paraplegia Hospital in Ahmedabad, India, which became the site of ALTSO’s first effort in 2003. ALTSO is now active in 15 countries, partnering with existing organizations to provide medical care, prosthetics and physical therapy for children from newborn through late teens.

ALTSO grew organically, says Welles, as its reputation spread, and requests for help have increased. Childhood limb loss and problems are usually because of trauma, such as traffic accidents, and congenital abnormalities. It’s difficult to pinpoint causes, says Welles, but pollution, noxious chemicals in water and malnutrition are all thought to be culprits: "In developing countries, you’ve got a much greater instance of birth defects."

Welles, who has three young children of his own, also points to the lack of ambulatory care in many of these places. If an injured child lives far from medical services, he or she will often go untreated, and an untreated injury can easily turn gangrenous and require amputation.

Limb loss is a too-common problem in Cambodia. After three decades of conflict, the country is littered with land mines and unexploded ordnance. ALTSO has partnered with UK outfit the Cambodia Trust, the largest provider of prosthetics in Southeast Asia, granting $18,000 in 2011. "We can achieve our mission through that relationship," explains Welles.

Patel supported Welles’s idea because not many organizations focus on providing limbs for children, and he saw Welles back up his intentions with action. "Mead has tremendous passion to do something for children," says Patel.

Those who want to experience ALTSO’s work can volunteer on missions. Says Welles, "If you were to ask them, they would probably say that it changed their lives." AR

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