When Jim DeWees arrived in the Dominican Republic in 1984 to serve a full-time mission he was ready to learn a new language, sample some Caribbean food and adjust to a different culture.
He wasn’t prepared to encounter the stark number of people missing arms or legs. Wherever he went he saw Dominicans who had lost limbs to perhaps disease, car crashes or industrial accidents.
Often their conditions severely limited mobility or their ability to find work. Many were dependent upon others just to get by.
Young Elder DeWees discovered a deep empathy for the amputees. During his training at the missionary training center he had developed a medical complication that doctors initially thought would cost him his foot. He recovered — but he often pondered how different his life would have been without a limb.
He would later find out.
In 1998, DeWees suffered severe frostbite on his left foot after falling through ice while recreating in the backcountry of Utah’s Uinta Mountains. The damage and pain were so severe that doctors had no choice but to remove DeWees’ left leg just below his knee.
The backcountry tragedy would change the course of his life — and reconnect him with the Dominican Republic and what were now his fellow amputees.
At the time of his accident, the Brigham Young University graduate was living in Salt Lake City and developing his medical research career. But as he went about the arduous, trial-and-error process of finding adequate prosthetics for his own leg he simultaneously found a desire to help others facing similar challenges.
He moved to Los Angeles and became a certified prosthetist. His training allowed him to work directly with amputees, evaluate their needs and then fabricate customized artificial limbs.
He eventually returned to his native Indiana and opened the Prosthetic Center of Indiana. DeWees enjoyed operating a business in his home state and helping clients enjoy a richer, more active life through his prosthetics. But his thoughts were never far from his second “home” in the Dominican Republic.
“When I lost my leg it again reminded me of the amputees I had seen on the streets in the Dominican Republic,” he said. “I loved the people, and I wanted to help.”
So in 2004 he returned for the first time to his mission country. He arrived in Santo Domingo with two suitcases full of prosthetic components — and no contacts in the local medical community.
He located a small prosthetics clinic called Innovacion Ortopedica and offered his help. The clinic directors were initially skeptical of DeWees. They had worked with North Americans in the past. Usually the visitors made big promises, snapped a few photos, swapped handshakes and were never seen from again.
But DeWees, they’d learn over time, was fully invested in helping the Dominican people. During his first trip to the Caribbean country he fitted 20 amputees with custom-built prostheses. He returned a short time later and fitted 20 more, and then 20 more.
Since that time, he estimates he has fitted scores of other Dominican amputees with artificial arms or legs.
“I have been blessed so much through this work,” he said.
Well-made, durable prosthetics aren’t cheap. DeWees is grateful for his partnership with LDS Charities over the past decade that has helped fund his joint efforts with Innovacion Ortopedica.
He also speaks highly of “the talented prosthetists” he works with in the Dominican Republic at Innovacion Ortopedica. They’re performing essential roles in helping people each day realize improved mobility and quality of life, he said.
DeWees often provides training at the clinic, helping his colleagues on the island keep pace with the last prosthetic innovations.
He still visits the Dominican Republic each year. “I’m planning to be back in January,” he said.
DeWees is a busy man. He’s the father of a teenage boy he adopted over a decade ago from China. His son, Cameron, is missing a hand and will soon be fitted with a high-tech prosthetic, so the two share a day-to-day appreciation of how well-made prosthetic equipment betters the lives of amputees.
He remains an athlete, an outdoorsman and served as a Scoutmaster for several years in his ward before being called as second counselor to the bishopric of the University Ward, Indiana Bloomington Stake.
Bishop Timothy Louis calls his counselor “an amazing” man who turned a negative event in his life into a positive opportunity to help others.
Despite his daily challenges as an amputee, DeWees “stays busy, active and in good shape,” added Bishop Louis.