Chesca Colloredo-Mansfeld: “Pay attention and be ready”

Empathize: How does the ability to move impact your daily life? Understand how little, in the scheme of global investments and development spending, it would take to make such a monumental difference in the lives of millions of children who could walk and move independently if they received treatment. Compared to many problems and global […]

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Empathize: How does the ability to move impact your daily life? Understand how little, in the scheme of global investments and development spending, it would take to make such a monumental difference in the lives of millions of children who could walk and move independently if they received treatment. Compared to many problems and global issues, treating clubfoot is simple, life-changing, and inexpensive. Few investments have this kind of impact on a child’s future.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Chesca Colloredo-Mansfeld, founder and CEO of MiracleFeet. MiracleFeet increases access to proper treatment for children born with clubfoot in low- and middle-income countries through partnerships with local healthcare providers. The non-profit envisions a world in which all children born with clubfoot receive treatment, enabling them to live fully productive, active and healthy lives.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

Professionally, I’ve worked across the spectrum — in investment banking, management consulting, internet start-ups, academia, and now in the global health non-profit world. And while I learned critical skills and built invaluable networks working in the corporate and academic worlds, my passion for working to improve children’s lives goes back to my childhood.

My father was a British foreign service officer and we moved around growing up. I was born in Swaziland and lived in Turkey, Zambia, Malaysia, occasionally England, and then Somalia before I left to attend college in the United States. From a young age, everywhere we lived, I noticed inequity all around me. When I was eight years old, we were living in Turkey, and I remember my parents taking us sledding. To get there we had to drive through a landfill, and I remember seeing a young girl who looked to be about my age, rummaging for food and salvageable goods. As our eyes met, I recall being deeply struck and saddened — ashamed even — that here I was doing something frivolous like sledding, while she was fighting to survive. It was a moment that ignited a deep desire in me to find a way to help others in a meaningful way.

Decades later, I was sitting in my office at the University of Iowa when a donor to the business school stopped by to ask for my help. One of the university’s orthopedic surgeons, Dr. Ponseti, had developed a groundbreaking treatment for a condition known as clubfoot, a common birth defect that affects 1 in 800 newborns globally. This new treatment was non-surgical, replacing a complicated surgical approach that usually required many operations, and as a result was well suited to low-resource settings. He shared a video of a Ugandan boy standing in a doorway, both of his feet twisted inward. The boy stood alone, watching his peers play soccer. He explained that children born with clubfoot in wealthy countries are almost always treated at birth so they can walk, run, and play sports just like other able-bodied kids. Meanwhile, children born with the condition in low-income countries don’t have access to this simple and life-changing treatment, and so are destined to live unable to walk properly, hidden away and marginalized.

I had a visceral reaction to seeing that forlorn child, resigned to watching from the sidelines, and I burst into tears. That night I told my husband that I knew what I needed to do with my life to fulfil the promise made to myself when I was eight. Fast forward a few years, I connected with some parents here in the U.S. who had children born with clubfoot who were treated by Dr. Ponseti using his breakthrough treatment, now known as the Ponseti Method. The parents, completely separately from me, had also concluded that this treatment had life-changing implications and was one of those rare “no-brainer” ideas that was practical, inexpensive, and needed to be implemented globally as soon as possible. MiracleFeet was formed by that idea and we have been working ever since to scale the low-cost, non-surgical solution globally.

Can you tell me about the most interesting projects you are working on now?

MiracleFeet works in 29 countries around the world. We have now helped 50,000 children access the treatment they need to walk, run, go to school, and live active, healthy lives. When we first started out ten years ago, we thought providing treatment to 10,000 children was ambitious. We have now set our sights on a much bigger goal: to end clubfoot disability worldwide by 2030. Based on how we have scaled access to treatment to date, we believe it’s possible to treat every child born with it everywhere in the world.

Technology will play an increasing role in achieving this mission. Our mobile data collection app, CAST, is transforming how we gather and use real-time data and amplifying our focus on treatment and program quality. The tool, which we just finished rolling out to over 250 clinics in early 2020, allows our local partners to maintain electronic medical records and improve clinic management, and enables our programs team to monitor and evaluate the quality of treatment and patient outcomes around the world. Real-time dashboards provide the data we need to answer critical questions and help our in-country partners plan for patient volume, supply needs, future clinic locations, and so much more.

In the future, we expect this app to power several new treatment innovations, including tracking brace compliance using a motion sensor, and providing a tool that midwives and maternity nurses can use for early identification and treatment referrals.

CAST is also proving to be incredibly useful in helping us inform our response to COVID-19. Having real-time data allows us to identify patterns and see which countries — and which clinics — are slowing down, suspending treatment, or reopening. This daily information is key to our response and support strategy for each clinic and for each child affected by the global pandemic.

So how exactly does your organization help people?

MiracleFeet provides access to proper treatment for children born with clubfoot in low- and middle-income countries through partnerships with local healthcare providers. Simply put, we build capacity in countries that don’t have the ability to treat clubfoot by identifying and training local doctors, physical therapists, and healthcare providers giving them the knowledge and expertise to treat the condition.

We do this through local partnerships with local doctors in government hospitals. We’re not flying American or European doctors in to treat kids or building new infrastructure. It’s all happening locally, using existing hospitals, which means the solution is long-lasting, sustainable, and cost-effective.

We also work on raising awareness of clubfoot to ensure communities know that it’s treatable, which is critical for early referral and identification. And we offer support and serve as a resource to families to ensure they understand the treatment process and are able to help their children through the different stages.

Can you tell me a story about a person that you helped?

There are so many stories of transformation. I often think of Yasmin, one of our very first patients in Brazil, who is now 12 years old. Her family lived on a farm in a northern state, a 14-hour bus ride from São Paulo, where the treatment facility is located. When they heard that free treatment was available for Yasmin, after having been told she would never walk or go to school, they left their farm and moved to a slum near the hospital in São Pauloso that Yasmin could receive care. Her treatment was successful, and after six months, they returned home. A year later, Yasmin started school, walking there with her brothers, something that had previously been unthinkable.

Xylord is another example. He’s now a thriving eight-year-old in the Philippines, but when I met his mother four years ago, neither she nor anyone in her family knew that the condition that caused him so much pain could be treated. She sobbed telling me the story about how his condition was undiagnosed at birth, and it wasn’t until she saw a poster at the hospital where her sister had just given birth that she knew his feet could be treated. The poster showed a picture of feet just like his, and a picture of feet after treatment. She felt waves of relief, and grief, and immediately contacted the MiracleFeet clinic listed on the poster. Tears pouring down her face, she told me she never thought her child would have a life. Today, he is an active, happy kid who walks two miles each way over rugged island hills to get to school — a journey that would have been impossible had he not received treatment.

There are 49,998 more stories like these — stories of families who want their children to be able to walk without pain, run, play, and join in.

This obviously is not easy work. What drives you?

In countries with advanced health systems, clubfoot is usually diagnosed via ultrasound and routinely treated shortly after birth, allowing the child to live an active life. In fact, world-class athletes Mia Hamm and Troy Aikman were both born with clubfoot. Routine access to highly effective treatment means that very few people in the U.S. have ever seen someone with the disability this condition causes.

In contrast, 85% of children born with clubfoot in the rest of the world have extremely limited access to treatment. Over 2 million children under 10 live with the severe disability and stigma this condition causes when left untreated. In low- and middle-income countries, children with untreated clubfoot face incredible hurdles. They are subject to higher risks of neglect and abuse, and the condition is a root cause of illiteracy, malnutrition, and poverty in many parts of the world. It shouldn’t be this way.

At MiracleFeet, we believe that ALL children, no matter where they are born, deserve access to the same treatment that kids receive here in the U.S. We won’t stop until that’s a reality.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Recognize that if we are really going to solve global poverty, we must address the rights and needs of people with disabilities, especially in low- and middle-income countries. Disability has fallen through the cracks of global development efforts and we have a long way to go towards inclusion. We must ensure people with disabilities have access to good healthcare, and fight the enormous stigma surrounding physical and cognitive impairments.

Mobilize resources and support for global health. Americans are incredibly philanthropic; however, much of that funding is understandably focused on domestic issues where solutions to problems are often complex and expensive. I would love to see more American philanthropic dollars reach low income countries where the same amount of money can have so much more impact.

Empathize: how does the ability to move impact your daily life? Understand how little, in the scheme of global investments and development spending, it would take to make such a monumental difference in the lives of millions of children who could walk and move independently if they received treatment. Compared to many problems and global issues, treating clubfoot is simple, life-changing, and inexpensive. Few investments have this kind of impact on a child’s future.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

My mother. She committed suicide when I was 28. I think about her every day. She was an incredibly generous person who cared deeply about helping other people. Losing her fueled a yearning to fulfill what she would have expected of me. In many ways, by leading this work — bringing essential rehabilitative care to children who need it — I am answering that obligation.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Stop over-complicating the “how.” You don’t need special training or a personal connection to the cause. Don’t worry that “it’s not big enough,” or “this isn’t my dream/what I thought I would always do.” I was passionate about helping kids. I had no personal connection to clubfoot and no medical background. However, I knew the need and I knew the treatment innovation existed, so I figured out a way for the two to meet. From there, it was simply a matter of execution.
  2. Pay attention and be ready. When opportunities come up, you have to be ready to grab them. Pay attention, because the truth is, they come across your path constantly. But if you haven’t made a conscious decision to be open to finding “your thing” it may pass you by.
  3. Forget Perfect. Learn by doing. Starting our first partnership in Brazil wasn’t perfect…forget perfect. When you’re doing something that no one has done, you don’t know what’s going to work. We hopped on planes, met with the contacts we had, and got it done one day at a time. We learn by doing, by tackling complex problems one conversation and detail at a time, by listening to people and learning from successes and mistakes together. What seems impossible isn’t. Progress happens one step at a time.
  4. Reflect constantly. It’s critical to develop an eye for constant reflection. Ask hard questions of yourself and of your team, like “how can we do this better, faster, and cheaper?” Don’t be afraid to admit mistakes and be open to constant improvement.
  5. Realize one small stone can start a huge ripple effect. We set out to treat clubfoot. That alone doesn’t sound like a “big idea,” but the reality is, in doing that we are also helping to permanently eliminate a cause of poverty, ending a physical disability, and reducing physical and sexual abuse in a vulnerable group of children. All for around 500 dollars per child. That’s a pretty incredible return on investment.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I feel passionately about the issue I’m involved in solving, but I am also very frightened by climate change. It’s not an issue I have the technical expertise to address, but it’s clear this is a pressing problem of our time. Many of the vulnerable families we help in low- and middle-income countries will be the most affected by the economic and environmental consequences of climate change. More populations will increasingly suffer if we don’t act, together, and galvanize real change.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this. 🙂

Oh, that’s easy: Phil Knight,the founder of Nike. He has pledged to give away half his wealth. It would take only a fraction of that (a few hundred million dollars) to ensure that every child, everywhere has access to clubfoot treatment forever. I cannot imagine a better cause for someone who built his entire career around “just do it,” than to give millions of kids mobility for life. Nike has inspired generations of people worldwide to achieve the impossible. Eradicating this disability is possible, and Phil Knight could ensure it happens.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

Please follow MiracleFeet on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, @miraclefeet.

You can also connect with me on LinkedIn.

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