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Winnipegger passionate about creating custom breasts for women who've lost theirs to cancer

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Smith says designing, building and fitting breast prostheses is a blend of art, engineering, biomechanics and common sense.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Smith says designing, building and fitting breast prostheses is a blend of art, engineering, biomechanics and common sense. Photo Store

Wendy Smith has crafted just about every external body part imaginable -- legs, fingers, toes, noses, arms, ears.

But the certified prosthetist and clinical anaplastologist is most passionate about her breast work: recreating lifelike breasts for women who have lost them to cancer.

It's a passion that goes back to the 1970s, long before Smith chose her unusual profession. Her favourite aunt -- who had breast cancer and a mastectomy -- inadvertently helped her discover her calling.

"She was super. She used to fill up a plastic bag with birdseed and put it in her bra. And I thought, wow. That's really something," says Smith, noting that breast prostheses were not mainstream at the time.

"I thought, 'Gee, Wendy. You can do better than that.'"

So she did.

Smith learned how to make prostheses three decades ago at George Brown College in Toronto. Shortly after, she moved to Winnipeg to work as a prosthetic technician at the Health Sciences Centre. She later went back to school at George Brown, where she completed her training.

Today, she says she is one of only three people in Canada who specializes in making prosthetic, functional body parts.

Smith is also a painter and a sculptor, skills she uses when designing, building and fitting her prostheses.

"It's a real blend of art, engineering, biomechanics and -- you know what? -- just common sense," says Smith, who runs her business, Lifeart Prosthetics, from an office on north Main Street.

Her kids and husband are used to seeing her creations around the house, including art installations she creates from prosthetic limbs and paint.

Most of her clients are referrals from physicians. She also has made prostheses for clients in the United States.

The mother of three also has a new business venture: Bressanté, a company that specializes solely in breast prosthetics. (www.bressante.com)

It's an idea that came to her after years of hearing women's complaints about traditional breast prostheses.

"If you think of wearing uncomfortable underwear for the rest of your life that's horrible, and that's what some women are having to do with sub-standard prosthetics," says Smith.

"I had to create a better design than what was out there. What was out there was thin plastic with silicone gel. Those tend to be heavy and hot and they shift, and you always know you're wearing it. They are not very nice looking, either."

Her pieces range from about $500 to $3,000. Some of the costs are covered by Manitoba Health and certain private insurance plans.

Smith's claim to fame is an "ultra-custom" prosthetic created from a cast made especially for each client. Such pieces include specific colouring so that the piece -- including the prosthetic nipple -- matches that of the client.

She can even add tattoos, freckles and beauty marks to custom prosthetic breasts.

"As your body warms it up, it becomes part of you, really. With a good-fitting bra you shouldn't even realize you're wearing it. That's when I've done my job correctly," says Smith.

She also crafts more affordable options. One comes in a choice of three colours.

Another version suits a woman whose weight fluctuates due to medication.

"You can add some (filling) to it or reduce the amount of filling that's in there, or you can switch the filling and take it in the pool and go swim with it," Smith says, noting they are waterproof.

Smith is protective about her manufacturing techniques and says she already patented one of her processes and is working on patenting the rest.

Lori Orchard, a fitness leader and health-and-wellness consultant at Concordia Hospital, has been working with Smith since a post-mastectomy breast reconstruction failed in 2006.

"My breasts weren't evenly balanced. That's why I had to wear a prosthetic," says Orchard, whose reconstructed breast "encapsulated" and hardened, making movement difficult.

Conventional prosthetics -- the kind you buy off a rack that fit into a bra -- wouldn't have worked in her situation because of her concave chest, she says.

In 2008, Orchard needed her other breast removed and opted out of another attempt at reconstructive surgery.

She says Smith's custom-designed prosthesis feels like it's part of her body, so much so, that she even teaches fitness classes while wearing it.

Orchard -- who is helping Smith test her products -- understands why doctors encourage women to get reconstructive surgery after a mastectomy, "but I'm hoping the medical community will get on board and support this other option," she says.

Meanwhile, Smith who prides herself in the way her creations function, will always see them as art.

"The human body is just a really amazing thing," she says.


Have an interesting story idea you'd like Shamona to write about? Contact her at shamona.harnett@freepress.mb.ca.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 24, 2014 D1

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Updated on Monday, February 24, 2014 at 6:43 AM CST: Replaces photo, changes headline

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