Prosthetics Innovation: Giving Back the Future to Boston Marathon Amputees

People throughout the world were touched by the tragedy of the Boston Marathon bombings. I live 45 minutes north of Boston – close enough to be highly effected by the bombings, the search for the attackers, and a lingering sense of sadness for the victims.

Many of those who survived the blast were left with horrific injuries to their lower extremities. Sixteen of the survivors have undergone amputations, each showing incredible strength and resilience in the healing process. Some, like 32-year-old Adrianne Haslet, who lost her foot in one of the blasts, plan to run in next year’s marathon.

Haslet and others are looking to the prosthetics industry and experts like Hugh Herr, a renowned prosthetics and assistive technology expert at the Biomechatronics Group at MIT’s Media Lab in Cambridge, MA., to help them rebuild their lives.

“If a person has lost a leg in this Boston attack – and if they’re motivated and generally health and reasonably athletic, they could, given current technology, walk or run across the finish line at the Boston Marathon this time next year,” Herr said directly after the bombings. Herr became a double amputee himself after a climbing accident in 1982.

Within days of the bombings, countless men and women, prosthetics in hand, were seen flying into the Boston airport to lend support.

One such person was Aaron Holm, the founder of Wiggle Your Toes, an organization that assists individuals with limb loss. In his blog about his Boston experience with other members of Wiggle, Aaron writes, “Wiggle’s presence made many realize that with today’s technologies and the passionate people who work with prosthetics the survivors will walk again.”

After the blasts, the American Orthotic & Prosthetic Association invited prosthetics organizations from around the world to help the bombing victims. Roger Gonzalez is a professor of mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering at the University of Texas at El Paso, as well as the president and founder of Limbs International.

Gonzalez says Limbs International donated secondary water limbs for showering and other water activities free of cost to the marathon victims who underwent amputations.

Young amputees from the Boston Marathon can expect to see great advancements in prosthetics within their lifetime.

“There is so much happening in the research world,” Herr says. “It is not linear, it is exponential because there are so many more people working on these problems. By the time [these young amputees] are 40, the bionic legs we have in society will be extraordinary and will make today’s limbs look prehistoric.”

Herr, whose own artificial limbs have 12 computers, five sensors, and muscle-like actuator systems, is leading the way in this research. He invented the BiOM, which is revolutionizing lower-leg prosthetics. The BiOM bends like a joint and flexes like a muscle. It adjusts mid-stride to different speeds, slopes and terrains, and recycles energy like real flesh and bone.

How a prosthetic performs will be crucial for younger amputees who were incredibly physically active before the bombing, but it’s not just about functionality. Over half of the Boston Marathon amputees are women, and for women in particular, the look of the prosthetic is a huge factor.

While most amputees are men who tend to wear their prosthetic as a badge of honor, often women want a more natural looking leg.

Roseann Sdoia, a Boston development executive who lost her right leg above the knee in the bombings, is working with a Dorset Orthopaedic in England to craft a cosmetic covering for her prosthetic leg. The company has already started designing the covering, complete with freckles and toenail color, though it’s unclear how Sdoia and others will fair with insurers. The lifetime cost of a computerized prosthetic for an above-the-knee amputee is 1.5 million dollars, and that’s not counting cosmetic covers. Specialized running and swimming legs are even more.

While nothing can erase the tragic aftereffects of the Boston Marathon bombing, research and advances in prosthetics offer great promise, as does the courage and wherewithal that the Boston survivors have exhibited.

Herr put it best in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal: “Instead of labeling humans as broken, the industry ought to apologize for its limitations. Humans aren’t broken. They’re never broken.”

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Photo credit: Boston Globe/Getty Images

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