Santa Rosa prosthetist has given thousands a leg to stand on

You could say Jon Batzdorff is a leg man.

But, by the same token, he’s also an arm man and a foot man and an elbow man.

Batzdorff, you see, is a prosthetist and orthotist, who has met with patients and created artificial limbs in his Santa Rosa office for the past 25 years.

In addition, his volunteer work providing disaster victims with artificial limbs and teaching the most up-to-date techniques to fellow prosthetists have allowed him to crisscross the world. Those efforts recently earned Batzdorff the Jewish Community Agency of Sonoma County’s inaugural Tikkun Olam award. He will be honored at a dinner/fund-raiser on May 16.

Not bad for an incessant tinkerer who just wanted to find a way to work with his hands.

“Furniture, anything electrical, repairs around the house, models — a lot of models. I was always taking scraps of wood and scraps of paper and all kinds of materials and building things,” recalled Batzdorff, 53, a past president and active member of Santa Rosa’s Conservative Congregation Beth Ami.

“I got out of college in 1973 and I had no idea what I was going to do with an anthropology degree. And then my wife saw an article in the newspaper about someone who made artificial limbs; maybe like the article you’re going to write. What it involved doing was a combination of working with your hands and working with people. And it was right at the end of the Vietnam War, and a lot of vets were coming back with amputations, so there was a need for people to do that work.”

Batzdorff wrote a few letters and soon found himself filling out an application for the prosthetics program at UCLA’s School of Medicine.

They not only admitted him, but gave him a scholarship.

While at school, Batzdorff took a trip south of the border, measuring and fitting indigent Mexicans for prosthetic limbs. It was the first of many trips overseas to aid the needy and, more importantly, teach others to aid the needy.

In 1989, Batzdorff traveled to Armenia where an estimated 36,000 people were injured in a disastrous earthquake. He fitted dozens and dozens of victims for artificial limbs, took the measurements back to his Santa Rosa laboratory, and then returned to Armenia to deliver the goods.

The inherent difficulties of flying tens of thousands of miles to deliver prosthetics — which may not fit right, creating an incredible logistic headache — made a strong impression on Batzdorff. Since then he has emphasized the creation of relief facilities and instruction of prosthetists overseas.

The Jewish Community Agency, Sonoma County’s self-described “Jewish Community Center without walls,” felt Batzdorff was a natural for the Tikkun Olam award. As program director Beth Goodman notes, his work practically defines the term.

In the past decade, Batzdorff has made several trips to Russia, a journey to Turkey and, on May 2, returned from his third jaunt to Lithuania.

Wherever Batzdorff goes, he always strives to make things better. Most other countries aren’t churning out the microprocessor-controlled artificial legs he’s built in his workshop (sensors in the feet relay walking speed and even the incline of the ground to receptors in the knee). But, when patients complain of discomfort or are forced to still use crutches after being fit with prosthetic legs, that’s where Batzdorff steps in.

“I love what I do. Many of my patients were young children when I first saw them, and I still run into them now, 25 years later. I look forward to those trips going away, and I look forward to coming back. It’s never boring, this kind of work.”

The Jewish Community Agency will honor Jon Batzdorff at its Spring Fundraising Gala, 5:30 p.m. Sunday, May 16, at the Vineyard Creek Hotel, 170 Railroad St., Santa Rosa. Tickets are $100. Information: (707) 528-4222.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.