Friday, October 13, 2006

High-tech limbs can do anything you can do, maybe even better

Don't cringe, they're here to stay: Robo Cop-style, computer-controlled, battery-powered "wooden legs" made from carbon fiber and titanium, "tattooed" with decals and gaudy paint jobs like some NASCAR speed piece, hanging out there for everyone to see.
"I don't care. What you see is what you get," says Beau Marek, a 23-year-old, ex-Air Force jet-engine mechanic.
And you'll get to see it, if you're around Marek, who is letting his Adaptive high-tech leg hang out of his camo cargo shorts as he is hanging around the fabrication shop at Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics Inc., 4920 E. Speedway.
The 23-year-old "lost" his left leg four years ago, rear-ended by a drunken driver while on his motorcycle out on Old Spanish Trail.
Marek still works on planes, now as a civilian at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base's AMARC (Aircraft Maintenance and Regeneration Center) "boneyard."
Yes, he still rides a motorcycle, though, he deadpans, "but not that one."
Can he climb stairs?
How about a ladder?
"Sure, I do it all the time at work. I crawl around on top of airplanes," he says.
The most he'll allow is that learning to walk right after the accident was a bit tough.
"The hardest thing was learning to walk on that "pole with a spring," his therapist's name for his first crude, low-tech artificial leg.
"He said, 'If you can walk on this, you can walk on anything,' " recalls Marek.
Marek's visiting Kevin Carroll, chief of prosthetics for Hanger, in town for a fitting clinic at the national chain's Tucson office.
There are several legs — actually combinations of knees, ankles and feet, says Carroll — that are sometimes generically referred to a "C-legs," though that is actually a brand. But because of Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury" comic strip, in which character "B.D." is struggling with getting back into civilian life and getting around on his C-leg after a hitch in Iraq , the brand is turning into a common term.
Carroll says we'll be seeing more high-tech artificial limbs — which range in price from $30,000 to $120,000 — with all the severe injuries coming out of Afghanistan and Iraq.
But it's not a grim scene at Hanger this afternoon, with dozens of people in for fittings or to visit with Carroll.
In the shop, Carroll jokes around with Marek, telling him how he could win a bar bet by telling someone he could set a beer glass on the bottom of his shoe without spilling a drop or getting up off the stool.
Carroll then demonstrates, twisting Marek's high-tech limb, while instructing him he has to grimace more convincingly as he twists his lower leg until the toe on his sneaker is facing backwards, then rotating it 90 degrees upwards so he can set the cup on the sole of Beau's shoe — now facing the ceiling.
One of the Tucson patients Carroll got to catch up with, Rich Sainz, credits Carroll with not only fitting his first high-tech leg three years ago, but changing his life.
Sainz, 38, changed careers and went to work as a prosthetist at Hanger, fitting others, after meeting Carroll.
Carroll, 48, says Sainz had an impact on him, too. He doesn't throw around the term "inspirational"; it sounds like a cliché when describing people overcoming physical challenges. But he says Sainz sticks out among the thousands of amputees he's met over the years.
He says he got hooked on helping people who needed prosthetics when he was a child in Ireland. His mother volunteered at the hospital and he saw children with braces and prosthetic devices.
"I said, 'That's what I want to do.' "
In his job visiting Hanger's hundreds of offices throughout the U.S., Carroll says he meets a lot of people who make him feel like a whiner when his shoulder aches or he has a stiff back.
But three years ago he was in Tucson on one of his fitting clinic tours and ran into Sainz.
"He said, 'I want to run, I want to run FAST,'" Carroll recalls.
Soon, Sainz says, he was fitted with a Sprint Foot, a springy, laminated "foot" that attaches to his shock-absorbing lower leg, hydraulically dampened knee and the Fiberglass "socket" that attaches this collection of technology to his thigh.
Sainz, who sports a Superman logo on his artificial leg, says he's running 100-yard and 200-yard dashes faster than he did while at Salpointe High School.
It's a fine time for what Hanger's Tucson manager, Eric Burns, calls "a true renaissance" in artificial limbs.
Up until 10 years ago, the technology in artificial legs hadn't really changed in at least 50 years, says Carroll.
"It's Steve Austin stuff," says Eric Burns, when asked what's coming next.
● Contact reporter Dan Sorenson at 573-4185 or