Monday, April 30, 2007
Missoula City Councilmember Jon Wilkins walks up a small knoll with his new prosthetic foot on Thursday as prosthetists Cara Negri and Doug Turner follow. Wilkins' new Proprio Foot, one of the first 100 on the market, enabled him to walk up the incline, which he couldn't do with his old prosthetic. “Normally I wouldn't even attempt this,” Wilkins said.
Photo by TOM BAUER/Missoulian
Jon Wilkins hasn't been able to climb Mount Sentinel for more than 20 years. In 1990, a boulder crushed his foot while he was laying pipe and the accident led to a partial leg amputation.
Wilkins, a member of the Missoula City Council, has walked with a prosthetic ever since, and it tires and hurts him. The rigid, artificial limb requires a lot of energy to move. In fact, people with such injuries use 35 percent more energy to move than do folks using their own limbs.
Climbing stairs often sends a bolt of pain down Wilkins' back, and he hasn't been able to walk far without sitting and resting. He definitely couldn't walk straight up a hill - until Thursday.
On Thursday morning at Western Montana Orthotics & Prosthetics on Reserve Street, a team of prosthetists fit Wilkins with the first Proprio Foot to hit Montana and one of the first 100 on the market. The new foot and ankle look to be improving not only his body, but his entire being.
With “the world's first motor-powered and intelligent prosthetic foot” secured to his left leg, a beaming Wilkins marched straight up a knoll without even a wobble.
“I've never been able to do that,” Wilkins said. And setting his sights even higher, Wilkins decided to climb to the “M” on Mount Sentinel.
“That's my goal. I haven't been up to the ‘M' in 20 years,” he said.
Developed by an Iceland-based company called Ossur, Proprio was released just nine months ago and received an award for excellence in medical design earlier this month.
Wilkins was paging through an issue of Popular Science when he learned about the foot and ankle. A computer in the foot records the wearer's typical gait. It senses angles and then flexes like a real foot.
His old artificial limbs don't have computers and can't bend at the ankle, either. That means Wilkins has to walk sideways to go up and down inclines. Stairs are hard, too, because he has to swing his leg around and over every step. If he doesn't, his toe catches.
Since the construction accident along Highway 200, he's worn out four prosthetics, though they're not completely out of commission. Wilkins sets them out as decorations on Halloween.
When he read about the computerized foot, he called his prosthetist, Doug Turner, to learn more. They decided to give it a shot, and it helped that workers' compensation approved the expense. At $35,000, it costs some three times more than a traditional artificial limb, though to Wilkins the benefits appeared to be vast, too.
Two representatives from Ossur's California office were in Missoula helping Wilkins learn to use his Proprio. In the office, Wilkins joked about his disability: “You ever seen a one-legged man swim?” he asked. You haven't, he said, because he only swims in circles.
He joked and tested out the foot as Cara Negri, an Ossur prosthetist, adjusted it to fit.
In a brand-new pair of hiking shoes and fresh socks, Wilkins stood, walked and sat back down. When he sat, he even let his foot relax and bend. That action allowed his upper leg to relax, too, which he hasn't been able to do without removing his prosthetic.
Ossur's Nicholas Antonucci explained that Wilkins' body had learned to walk a different way to compensate for not being able to rely on that foot, and his body would readjust.
“He's going to walk a lot better and feel a lot better,” said Antonucci, an Ossur manager.
In fact, Wilkins felt better within a couple hours. He climbed a small hill head on - “That's just unbelievable,” he said, as the team looked on.
“That is really impressive,” Turner said.
Wilkins didn't need to sit and rest after the climb, nor did he feel the stab of pain.
“It saves so much energy. It's just absolutely phenomenal,” said Turner, who also wears a prosthetic.
Over time, people who wear prosthetics put more pressure on their spines, hips and knees, he said. They also are acutely aware of the paths on which they travel by foot. They know which side of the street the good sidewalks are on. They see even the smallest divots in the grass and avoid them.
“I think about every step I take,” Turner said.
They pay attention to where they are in space, and they can't take that for granted - “If you do, you fall on your butt,” said Wilkins, and he meant it literally. An ice patch once threw him to the ground.
The Proprio Foot will help, and he wants other people to know it's available.
“I felt it was a fluke that I found it,” he said.
Wilkins, a combat veteran, said he especially wants other veterans to know about the opportunity.
He believes his endurance level will go up as he uses his new leg. He plans to hook a fish again, too.
Since he hasn't been able to walk up and down riverbanks with his old prosthetic, he's been relegated to fishing from a boat on a lake.
He hasn't caught a thing. So he's going to head to the Blackfoot River, and he plans to take that hike up Sentinel, too.
“I think I can get to the ‘M,' ” he said. “I'll wait a week, but I think I'll try it.”