News & Politics

The Spine Whisperer

Hundreds of parents bring children with curved spines to Luke Stikeleather. He makes back braces—and makes wearing them less scary

Photograph by Matthew Worden.

Luke Stikeleather was in his twenties when he first made an orthotic brace, out of plexiglass and plaster, for a muscle problem in his left hand. He was inspired by a library book about prosthetics. He also found his calling.

Stikeleather pursued an education in orthotics and prosthetics as well as in social work. This combination—a knack for orthotics laced with empathy—is why parents bring children with scoliosis, or curvature of the spine, from as far away as Australia to have him make back braces for them. Some parents call him the Spine Whisperer.

Stikeleather, 51, has an orthotics practice in Fairfax connected to a Santa’s-workshop-like lab where he and his staff make about 250 back braces a year. Parents appreciate the individual attention each child receives. In a soothing voice, he assures a preteen girl named Kayla that life can still be positive when you’re wearing a brace under a tank top.

“In his office, it’s like I’m not even there,” says mother Melanie Minesinger of Fairfax. “It’s all about Kayla.”

Stikeleather—a military brat who grew up in the United States, Ethiopia, and Germany—remembers his time spent in hospitals while having his hand treated. “I got into medicine because I know what it’s like as a patient,” he says. “It made me realize that people have needs besides their physical ones.”

Scoliosis exists in about 3 percent of the population and affects young girls the most. The clock is always ticking for a severe curve to be corrected before surgical intervention is necessary.

“It’s a daily mission for me,” Stikeleather says. “Help them not experience what you read about in some books that have been written about scoliosis—which is dark and negative—and make it a pleasant experience. It’s exciting when they have finished the course of care and no longer need our help.”

This story fist appeared in the September 2010 issue of The Washingtonian. 

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