The Herald, Sharon, Pa.


April 6, 2014

Setting sail

Boat building takes away chronic pain

HERMITAGE — Dennis Ford holds up a pair of tweezers.

“The most important tool of a ship builder,” he quips.

Ford doesn’t build battleships under Army contract or yachts for the rich and famous. He builds plastic models.

But, the hours and hours he puts into the models means more than just getting a job done. It means time away from pain.

“I have a lot of pain,” the 69-year-old Hermitage man said. “When I do my model ships it goes away. I go to another world.”

Ford, a former building contractor, has always been a man with no time for outside interests. But building model ships, which some would view as an outside interest, has become a lifeline, a therapy that helps him get through the day.

Ford suffers from peripheral neuropathy, a nerve disorder that, in his case, leaves his nerves starved for blood. The pain is intense. At its worse, he describes it as registering a 12 on a pain scale of 1 to 10, he said.

“You could set your watch by my neuropathy,” he said. “At 8:45 every night, it would take off.”

He wakes up in pain and the pain never leaves him.

“It’s hard for me to watch but it’s hard for him to live it,” said his wife, Sally, a Farrell girl he met in Texas.

Ford’s right leg was amputated above the knee about five years ago because of the condition, which has no treatment other than pain management.

He hates how most painkillers affect him, especially narcotics, so he has had trouble finding anything satisfactory. He now uses a Dutran patch – containing Fentanyl – that doesn’t take the pain away but reduces it to “just a nuisance,” he said.

The only thing that relieves the pain is building model ships, something he doesn’t remember how he got started doing.

“He was incapacitated and he needed something to do,” Mrs. Ford said. “He said, ‘Give me a boat,’ and I went and got him a boat.”

That was about two years ago.

His first boat was a whaling ship. The complexity of putting the thing together would drive his wife crazy, but is just what the doctor ordered for Ford.

The amount of concentration and focus needed to paint the parts, glue them together and string the sails and rigging takes his mind away from his body.

“My mind doesn’t wander at all because, when it wanders, it goes right to the stump,” said Ford, who grudgingly gave up basketball about nine years ago.

Ford builds Revell kits. The toughest part is stringing the sails to the masts and the body of the ship. He uses his trusty tweezers to thread the strings through tiny holes and then tie them tight.

The work is tedious and painstaking, but worth it for Ford.

“They come with very detailed instructions and you don’t want to miss a step,” said the native of Mill Creek, Ind. “The very first day, I got done and I went, ‘Look what time it is!’ It’s kind of like an obsession. I get to escape planet Earth.”

Now, that he has found a way to ease his pain, he’s starting to run out of room to keep his ships. Anyone who would like to buy a replica of the USS Constitution, the HMS Bounty, the Mayflower or the HMS Victory can call Ford at 724-813-9021.

He would like to get $500 for a boat, which sounds a bit steep, but reflects only pennies per hour of work put into each one, he said. It takes about four months to build one ship.

“If I can sell three a year, that’s all I can build, anyway,” he said.

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