06/08/2012 08:29 am ET Updated Jun 11, 2012

Dan Horkey, Global Tattoo Orthotic Prosthetic Innovations: Prosthetic Limbs With Style

Like many 21-year-olds, Dan Horkey felt pretty invincible. He was starting a career in construction and had his entire life ahead of him. But the course of that life changed one night in 1985, when Horkey went out to run a simple errand on his motorcycle and had an accident. Doctors told him they had to amputate his leg below the knee.

Falling into a depression after the amputation, Horkey was embarrassed about the appearance of his prosthesis and self-conscious about going out in public. He eventually found that by covering his prosthesis, people couldn't tell he was wearing one at all. But he then had an epiphany, realizing what made him different was also what made him special. He decided he wanted not to hide his prosthesis but to show it off.

That personal breakthrough was followed by a life-changing opportunity. After working everywhere from gas stations to the office of his family's general contracting business, Horkey was hired by a business that manufactured prostheses. Within a week, he created a prosthesis for himself that was painted with flames. "When I walked around in public, I received compliments on my flames, and it became a conversation piece," he said. "People wouldn't ask me how I lost my leg anymore -- instead they'd say, 'I like your leg. It's really cool.' I knew I wanted to start a business to help the masses of amputees, especially wounded veterans, and bring them a world of color and art."

That vision is now a reality. His business, Global Tattoo Orthotic Prosthetic Innovations (GTOPI), contracts artists who have experience painting or airbrushing cars and choppers to apply artistic "tattoos" or colors to prostheses or braces, which are sent in by customers or hospitals. "I knew from my own experience this was healing," Horkey said. "I wanted to do something to make people feel better."

What do you remember about your accident?

When I turned 18, I bought a motorcycle, but I was not very street smart and had a couple incidences where I almost crashed. So I had put it up for sale at the time of the accident, but that night I took it out for an errand and wasn't wearing a helmet or any kind of gear. I rear-ended a car that was turning left, clipped the right corner of it and flew about 75 feet off to the dirt shoulder and rolled. I looked down at my leg and saw my femur bone was cracked in half and almost exiting out through the skin, and my ankle was shattered and bleeding. My leg was still attached; however, I couldn't move it. I was in shock at that point. Thank God there was a witness who was jogging behind the accident who came to my rescue and kept me calm until the ambulance showed up. That night I turned a corner, basically, and changed my life forever.

When did you find out you were going to lose your leg?

Two days after the accident. The doctors told me the ankle was crushed in two spots and irreparable, and there was also a break right below the knee, and then gangrene set in. So I didn't have an option to save it.

Did the fact that you were losing your leg sink in then, or after the operation?

It really set in after they removed in. My leg was elevated, and I was laying in bed, looking at it. It was still kind of shocking. I couldn't believe it. I was so young, but I had to accept it -- I had no choice.

Were you wondering what you were going to do for work or how your life was going to change in general?

All of the above. I didn't really know what I was going to do. I knew I couldn't carry two by fours and swing hammers and work in the field. I got out of the hospital about a week and a half after the operation, and when I got home, that's when the depression set in, as well as the thoughts of "what am I going to do?" I hadn't met any other amputees in my entire life. I was depressed for a while, thinking of the mistake I had made and not knowing what was in store for me. Then I started focusing on getting fitted for a limb and on healing. There was skin damage on the residual limb and it took a couple of years before I could bear full weight on the prosthetic limb, so it was back and forth to the prosthetics clinic, trying to get comfortable. And during that time I was embarrassed about the way I looked and how I had to limp around with crutches and then with a cane. I was worried about what people thought about me. It hung over me for a couple years.

What about the appearance of your prosthesis made you feel self-conscious?

The temporary prosthetic looks like a big ace bandage or with the fiberglass wrap that you see on casts. It just didn't feel like it was mine, like I owned it. It wasn't a part of me. I was concerned about how people looked at me -- I think every amputee goes through that. I also had a problem with the color. Even after I moved to more of a permanent socket, it was colored with a pigment that didn't match my skin. It almost looked like the color of a band-aid, and the appearance of the socket almost looked like a plastic doll, with flesh colored material that didn't match. After a few years, I regained my gait to a natural walk and covered up my prosthetic so well, no one knew I had one.

What happened that allowed you to embrace being different instead of being embarrassed by it?

In the mid '90s, when braided carbon fiber came into the industry as a lightweight, strong material, I thought it looked cool and decided to start wearing my prosthetic more exposed. I liked the material -- it inspired me, made me feel robotic. I was feeling better about myself in public, and I wanted to raise awareness and show people that I could do anything they could do, and that I'm not disabled.

When did you take it to the next level of designing your own prosthesis?

In 2004, I was offered a position at Hanger Orthopedic Group in Tacoma, Wash., making prostheses and braces. I had that experience of building things with my hands, so they thought I would be a good fit and gave me a position to learn from the ground up. I had never thought about getting into that field before, but when you need a new leg to walk on and insurance doesn't adequately cover the cost, you seek opportunities. I was limping around and my socket wasn't fitting well, I was getting sores, so I quit the job I was at and went to Hangar, and a week later I was building my own prosthetic out of a mold, which was just amazing. Once I made my permanent socket, I said to myself, "I want this one to be different," so I used a fabric with flames.

Did it feel like you found your niche?

I had a passion for building prostheses. I loved making something someone else was going to wear and knowing I was playing a role in their lifestyle. I planned for a few years, researched, and didn't find any other prosthesis business that was offering this type of art to help people.

How did you decide to reach out to wounded veterans specifically?

A lot of them were coming back limbless from war, and I knew these guys would be hurting. I felt I could make a difference in their lives and wanted to find a way to present my services to the VA and see if they would cover it. I started networking at the grassroots level near Tacoma and met a Navy commander who had contacts in DC who said she would try to introduce my product through the chain of command to give me VA approved options. I got an email right before Thanksgiving 2009 stating that I had approved options and techniques, that the VA would cover my services 100 percent. Opportunities have been opening ever since I started this business, with amazing people reaching out to help me.

What feedback have you gotten from people who have received these prostheses?

We helped a soldier by chroming his prosthetic arm and doing a Terminator design with rods in the arm. He wanted it to look very robotic. There was another soldier who got Superman and Ranger tattoos on the back of his leg and he said, "This is going to make me feel like I'm back with the guys." That's what he was missing. We also had a 5-year-old whose mother promised him the best looking brace for his first day of kindergarten. We airbrushed a design on his brace so his classmates wouldn't be focused on the brace or a disability, but instead would be looking at the artwork. And my first two customers were in their late 50s, so we're helping men, women, people of all ages. This makes them feel whole again, to express themselves and their interests, and to regain their pride, which is exactly what it did for me. It helped my courage, my self-esteem.

So even though your life is different from what you expected at age 21, do you think this all happened to you for a reason?

Yes, but I didn't know that back then. It took more than 20 years for the plan to be revealed. I'm really happy and passionate about what I'm doing. My goal is to build a bigger company and have a facility that can employ amputees and veterans to manufacture these products in-house, and I'm not going to give up on what I want.

Entrepreneur Spotlight

Name: Dan Horkey
Company: Global Tattoo Orthotic Prosthetic Innovations (GTOPI)
Age: 48
Location: Port Orchard, Wash.
Founded: 2008
Employees: 3 contract artists
2012 Projected Revenue: $50,000



GTOPI: Meet The Customers