There is something you hear a lot about Leo Savoie. Somebody even said it after Leo Savoie went to deliver a warrant in a narcotics case and had to shatter the front door with his shoulder: “He really wants to help people.”
This phrase isn’t just a cliché designed to make a guy look good; it really defines the man’s life in a little room down a winding hallway that leads to the rear of a tiny building on Hickory Avenue. This is where Savoie proves that if in the end you really can’t go home again, you can at least stand on the porch and smell dinner cooking.
Reserve Division Commander Lt. Savoie is a designer and builder of artificial limbs, breast prostheses and orthopedic braces that help shattered men and women ravaged by surgery.
A woman who has carried the scars of childhood polio around with her all her life is back for her second visit with Savoie. She is in the little room and is wearing a leg brace following surgery to keep her knee from bending abnormally backward when she walks.
“I still feel this tightness against the sides of my knees when I walk,” the woman says. She drives the point home with a wince and points to the painful area on the side of her knee. Savoie is quick to loosen the brace, slide it off her leg and place it under his microscopic gaze.
“I’m going to loosen this and slide it further up your knee,” Savoie says. He goes about the task even as he explains it. He has his patient’s full attention, along with an appreciative smile from her. “That’s where you should wear it.”
In short order, the woman is up and strutting across the little room that is cramped with braces and wheelchairs, canes and assistance paraphernalia. Medical posters explaining bone and muscle structure cover the walls.
“Much, much better,” the woman says.
“That’s what it’s supposed to feel like … and what it’s supposed to do,” Savoie says.
It is then that you notice something odd about Savoie’s hands: each digit on both hands is missing the first joint, giving his hands a stumpy, awkward appearance.
Still, Savoie uses the stubs to maneuver through the workings of the complicated prosthesis with the dexterity of a microsurgeon.
The woman with the newly adjusted knee brace is gone and the 36-year-old Savoie takes a breather before jumping into his car and heading to see patients in Houma; then, “who knows where else he’s off to,” says Patricia Ford, Savoie’s assistant who keeps him plugged into his madding schedule without missing a beat.
Savoie holds up his hands. “I was 5 years old when I contracted bacterial meningitis,” Savoie says. “Because of that I lost these parts of each of my fingers. That’s really a traumatic thing for a kid, but I adapted very well. My parents never pulled any punches with me. And all my friends were really great people; they just treated me as any other normal kid. I guess maybe they even pushed me a little bit and that helped. I think I was around 6 when I got my first set of ‘limbs.’”
Limbs? Oh yeah, the meningitis also forced the amputation of both of Savoie’s legs just below the knees. The ones he walks around on these days are constructed of a lightweight composite material and are of Savoie’s own design and making. These are the same legs that carried him through the door on that narcotics warrant.
So you think it’s just by coincidence that Leo Savoie fell into this business? Or maybe that he should walk around with a “why me?” chip on his shoulder?
“Nahhhh, why would anybody want to do that,” he says through a wry smile. “You know my mom used to always tell me that I was here for a reason and that I should look at that reason as being able to help other people. You know, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve walked into a room with a patient for the first time and as the conversation goes along they say, ‘You just don’t know how I feel.’ That’s when I reach down and lift up my pants legs a few inches and they see that I do indeed know exactly how they feel. You can see, no, you can feel their attitude change. It’s tangible.” He continues, “It fills the room. They know immediately, ‘Hey, I’m not in this alone’ and ‘this guy must really care.’ Up to that point sometimes they had no idea. But when I lift those pants legs and give them a glimpse, life takes on a whole new meaning for them. Our relationship takes on a whole new meaning. They know there is life after amputation. They know that losing a leg or even two doesn’t mean the end of the world. Some people would say that what I have is a great disadvantage. I look at it as a blessing, something I can use to give inspiration to people.”
Many doctors and therapists send their patients to Savoie. And there isn’t a hospital or rehabilitation unit in Louisiana he hasn’t visited. But it’s the people out there, the men, women and children who are able to walk or reach for a doorknob or tie a set of shoelaces or shake somebody’s hand that brings the biggest smile to Savoie’s face. For him, it’s always about “my patients.” His people. He has a long list of them and he remembers each one of them as though they’d just met yesterday.
“There was a 21-year-old man who was in a bad car accident,” Savoie says. “One of his legs wouldn’t heal and he always had infections. I knew his uncle well and he asked if I would go and talk to his nephew. I told him what was available to him and that I would work with him. He made the decision to have the infected leg amputated and I made a prosthesis for him. And now, now, he’s running around playing baseball.” He continues, “He’s going to college. He has his life back to normal! He lives out in the country and he’s hard on that prosthesis. He kicked an armadillo one time and shattered his foot. But I built another for him. There are a lot of stories like that out there.”
“Out there” may be a hospital in Houma, a private residence in Morgan City or a rehab unit in Alexandria. “If that’s where I’m needed, that’s where I’ll go,” Savoie says.
“And he doesn’t get paid for that,” Ford says. “All that travel comes out of his pocket. He goes to wherever he has to go because he feels it would be difficult for those patients to come to him or he does it just to give them a little more TLC. He really wants to help people.”
All the Right Reasons
“As soon as I asked him why he wanted to be a police officer I knew he was doing it for all the right reasons. This guy really, really wants to help people. I knew that helping people was what his life is all about.” – Harahan Chief of Police Jacob “Mac” Dickinson speaking about Reserve Division Commander Lt. Leo Savoie