How a Decade of Technology Helped This Amputee

Photo: Judy Berna

If you have not figured it out by now, I’m the GeekMom writer who happens to be an amputee. I love sharing news from the world of prosthetics and what life is like when you click your leg on every day.

This past weekend, I visited my very first prosthetist while we were in Utah. I’ve told you about Joe and some of the exciting things he’s been creating. As he made a cast of my current socket so he can make me one of the new adjustable limbs he’s invented, we started talking. He was full of interesting stories about his trips to Haiti, making new limbs for amputees there, and about the exciting things he’s seeing in the world of prosthetics. His lab is full of metal feet, legs, arms, and hands. Every project he’s working on has a story about an amputee who needs some specific kind of limb, and for the most part he can help them all.

Me and my ‘Leg Guy,” Joe / Photo: Judy Berna

On our long drive home, through the gorgeous scenery of Eastern Utah and Western Colorado, I stared out the window and pondered. The conversations with Joe stuck with me. There have been huge changes in the prosthetist’s lab since we first met way back in 2004, when we talked about my first temporary leg. So much has changed in his lab and so much has changed in my world.

Ten years ago I was craving information. I had been pondering the idea of having my deformed foot cut off and getting a prosthetic limb for a couple of decades already, but information was hard to come by on such a specific topic. There were no books in the library about amputation or the lives of amputees. Those were the days before the internet was full of useful information. Going online was time consuming and there wasn’t much to find there, especially when it came to information on prosthetics. Then, a decade ago, things started to change. We got our first high(er) speed internet service and I was hooked. Suddenly I could dissect the extensive information that the Amputee Coalition of America had posted online. I could read stories about amputees and find pictures of the newest prosthetic limbs. This led me to websites like Hanger, a major prosthetic provider, where I found more extensive information about the hardware I’d be wearing if I made this choice. I visited several local Hanger offices after being encouraged by what I saw online, and actually held the metal foot that might give me more mobility.

Photo: Judy Berna

A year later I had my surgery. And now, almost ten years later, I’m still enjoying a version of that same metal foot I held in my hand a decade ago. At the time of my surgery I knew that even if prosthetic technology didn’t advance at all in the years to come, I’d be happy with the 2004 technology. But it has advanced, in so many exciting ways.

The running (Cheetah) legs that you see on Paralympic athletes were just being tested in 2004. I now have amputee friends, casual athletes, who use them for their daily runs. There are mechanical knees and ankles that can memorize your gait and replicate it to make a more natural walking pattern. Amputees can choose some  amazing attachments for their artificial limb, making it easier to partake in certain games and hobbies. The world of prosthetic options has exploded and will continue to grow in the years to come.

Photo: Judy Berna

But it’s not just the hardware that has changed. Attitudes have changed. When I was a kid, amputees most likely used a wheelchair. They were old men who had been in a war and come home with fewer limbs. They were not people we saw very often and they were most certainly not people who would jog around our neighborhoods or show up on our TV screens.

I visit many amputee internet boards. I hear stories about what it was like to be an amputee before 2004.  I’ve read books about people my age, who grew up with wooden legs—literally legs made of wood. The world was a different place for those amputees, and not just in the hardware they strapped on every morning. In the ten years since I’ve joined their club, public attitudes have changed. I don’t hesitate to wear shorts in public and I’ve never had an negative comment about my prosthetic leg. In fact, I’ve had the opposite reaction. People are fascinated by my hardware. Little children might squat behind me in the grocery store line (a common occurrence), but it’s not because they see me as a cripple. It’s because they want to figure out how my metal ankle works. They want to see my “robot” leg.

The news about newly injured young military folks getting their lives back after amputations and videos showing little kids using new prosthetics to run across the playground have changed people’s attitudes. The more they see how normal an amputee is, the more amputees are accepted back into the able-bodied world. My co-workers are not afraid to ask about my limb, and they listen with interest as I tell them how much it’s changed my life for the better. No one sees me as less than; they see me as differently abled.

Many adaptive athletic organizations have popped up in the last decade, encouraging amputees to get off the couch and get back to their active lives. Online amputee support sites were flooded with new members once the internet caught up to our needs. Interacting with other active amputees inspired those who thought they were alone in their journey.

Everyone has their own opinion about the court case surrounding one of the most famous amputee athletes, but whether or not Oscar Pistorius is found guilty of a terrible crime, he has changed the world of amputee perception. By qualifying to run on his two prosthetic legs in the able bodied Olympics, he became a symbol to all amputees—especially amputee children—of what could be accomplished on metal legs. And he changed how the world looks at us.

Although I shouldn’t be, I’m still astonished when I see amputees represented positively on television. Both Amy Purdy and Sarah Reinertsen competed in the Amazing Race. Chad Crittenden held his own on Survivor. A main character on Grey’s Anatomy is an amputee. Luke, a character on the popular sitcom Modern Family, casually tells his sister that it wouldn’t be a big deal if he lost his leg because then he could get one of those “cool running legs.” And a revealing episode of House informed us that the doctor who limps through the series with a bad leg wishes he’d had his leg amputated when he had his medical crisis. He wishes he’d had the courage to amputate. That’s a new way of thinking and I’m thrilled to see it on my TV.

Survivor: Vanuatu © CBS

My ‘ampuversary’ is a few months away. On January 12, 2004 I will celebrate a decade of new mobility. A decade is a long time. Long enough for me to feel totally comfortable in my amputee life which quickly became a non-issue in our house. My four children have grown up seeing me do everything else other mommies do; the fact I click on a leg in the morning seems very normal to them. Their friends have cycled through the house in the three different states we’ve lived in the past ten years and not one of them saw my amputee status as anything more than fascinating.

Attitudes have changed and this new generation is growing up with new ideas. In the next decade amputees will continue to be out there, mixed into the able bodied world. We no longer hide behind long pants or stay home when adventure calls. I’ll celebrate my anniversary with a grateful heart. I’m so incredibly grateful to be a part of a community of amazing people, and grateful I get to be a part of an exciting new world.

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