The Best Gift I Received This Year

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

I know a lot of people found treasures under the tree this year. My Facebook feed is full of pictures of very happy friends, holding up their prizes. I happened to get my best gift earlier this year, way back in June.

I realize that most of our readers walk around on two regular feet, but I like to keep you able-bodied folks up to date on what life is like in the amputee community. And the gift I got this year will help you understand on a much more detailed level, what life with one limb is like.

When you’re an amputee, anything that makes your leg more comfortable and your life a bit easier, is a treasure. When my very first prosthetist, Joe, started telling me about a new leg he was designing, that was supposed to be more comfortable, my ears perked up with interest.

I found Joe before my amputation surgery and after some healing time, he set me up with my very first leg, then patiently tweaked it (sometimes 3 times a week) until it was just right. That was almost ten years ago. I was lucky enough to have Joe as my prosthetist for three more years, until we moved out of the state. After that I kept in touch with him just to see what he was up to.

And Joe doesn’t seem to know how to relax. He loves what he does, and he does it well. Besides the occasional camping trip with his wife and adorable daughters, during the past seven years he’s been working on a prosthetic design that will probably change how prosthetics are made.

What Joe understands, and other inventors do not, is that no matter how wonderful a foot design is, if a socket doesn’t fit right, the foot doesn’t matter. Every week there’s a new article in the news, about another state of the art, exciting new prosthetic foot on the market. They can run faster, leap higher, anticipate gait patterns. They get a lot of media attention. But if the socket that holds that person’s residual limb is uncomfortable, they will end up sitting on the couch all day, not able to take advantage of their amazing new foot.

Photo: Ossur
Photo: Ossur

Joe saw that the most difference he could make was to design a socket that fit well, every day, and was user friendly. He got called off the mountain on his one free day to ski, a few too many times, just to make a five minute adjustment to a client’s leg socket. Watching his wife adjust her snowboard boot inspired a revolutionary idea. Why not use the BOA dial that comes on many kinds of sports gear, so that an amputee could adjust his own leg?

Side note: a BOA dial is a common feature in sports equipment, especially snowboard boots. It allows you to dial the tightness of your boot up and down, for flexible comfort on the mountain. Here is what a basic snowboard boot with a BOA dial looks like:

Photo: BOA technologies
Photo: BOA technologies

In the back of his mind, Joe had always been bothered by another thought. For many years Joe has traveled to Haiti, making legs and arms for amputees there. Every time he left, he left with a burden on his heart. These amputees would need adjustments on those new legs, much like the hundreds of adjustments Joe made to my leg, in the first year of my amputee status. There are very few prosthetists in Haiti to make those adjustments. Many Haitians will literally lose their jobs, and their livelihoods, because their leg doesn’t fit. What if he could leave them with a leg they could adjust themselves?

hama2
Photo: Joe Mahon

Taking the BOA dial idea home to his garage, he cut up his wife’s snowboard boot and made his first prototype. Fast forward a couple of years, a handful of beta testers, and some serious copyrighting adventures, and his new company, called Revolimb, was born.

I wrote about Joe’s new design just over a year ago, but had not had a chance to try it. Over the summer my family drove to Utah to catch up with Joe and get my own sample made. As an added bonus, he laminated my favorite football team on the outside of my leg (a good decision, it seems, as my Seahawks have had their best season ever). I literally wore my new leg out of the office, after a quick tutorial on how to use it.

Here’s how the tutorial goes: “When it’s too loose, turn the dial until it’s comfortable. If it gets too tight, pop the button open to loosen it up.” That’s it.

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For those of you who are not amputees, the biggest problem with wearing a prosthetic socket is how loose or tight it fits on any given day. It has to be a perfect fit of all the bumps and ridges of your residual limb. If temperature variations, or diet variations, or even sweat variations, change the volume of your limb, you no longer have a perfect fit. The answer up to this point was to take off your leg, put on a thin sock to fill in the space, and put your leg back on.  If it persists long enough, you end up back in your prosthetist’s office, so he can add a pad to fill in the space.

With my new Revolimb I’ve never used a sock. Other amputees might have trouble believing this, but I have not worn a sock since the day I got my new leg, in June. I no longer carry back up socks in my purse, and in the glove box of my car, and in the backpack when we’re hiking or at festivals. The socks now live in the back of my dresser drawer, unused.

I have not been in to my prosthetist’s office for an adjustment either. I’ve been in once, to have him adjust the setting on my foot, but my leg socket has fit perfectly.

Here are some pictures to give you an idea as to what it looks like, and how it works.

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

This is my new leg, hanging out on my kitchen table.

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

And here’s the BOA dial, unsnapped and loose. By cranking the dial, I can tighten up that area in my socket.

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

This is the inside of my socket. Notice the awesome Seahawks green that Joe so carefully picked out. The three green panels get tighter and looser, by turning my BOA dial.

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

From the front, it’s just one amazing Seahawks leg.

I waited this long to write out my feelings about the Revolimb because the information and advice I give to other amputees matters to me. If I am going to encourage someone to make a radical change in the leg socket they wear, or have them beg their prosthetist to find out how to make a Revolimb, it better be worth it to them.

I wore it all summer, and loved how comfortable I was, even when my leg was sweating and my volume changed six times in a day. I loved how I could literally lean down in the aisle of the grocery store and dial up my leg a few notches to get better comfort. With my old leg, I’d have to go find a private place (usually a bathroom), take off my leg, add the sock, put my leg back on, and hope no one put my half filled grocery cart away by the time I got out.

I wanted to see how winter temperatures would affect my feelings about this leg, mainly the issue of wearing long pants. We are pretty die hard here in Colorado so unless the temperature is below 30 I generally wear shorts, especially around the house. Eventually we got the negative temperatures and I pulled my jeans out of the closet.

The issue I found with jeans and long pants relates entirely to the BOA button that sticks out the back of my leg. I can’t wear skinny jeans (not that I ever wanted to) and even in regular jeans, there is a slight bit of “catch” on the dial when I walk. I was at a family reunion in Dallas over Thanksgiving weekend and wore shorts and jeans on alternate days. It was noticeably easier to walk with shorts on, with no catching on the dial.

The other issue the dial presents is going to the bathroom. Ladies will notice this more, as we sit down more often, but when it’s time to pull up your pants again, you have to consciously remember to reach down and keep them from being snagged on the dial.

Honestly, these are the only two negative things I could find to say about the Revolimb. And I’m more than willing to put up with them, if it means I have comfort every single day. I don’t have to visit my prosthetist for frequent adjustments anymore, and I can go on remote hikes and bike rides without worrying that my leg will lose volume and become uncomfortable. I no longer have to know where every bathroom is in public places, so I can add a sock to my leg. I no longer have to be the main attraction (especially to little children) when I have to change a sock in public while wearing shorts. In short, it’s changed my life.

Here’s a video of Joe himself, demonstrating how his Revolimb works, in thirty seconds or less.

The bonus to this “gift” is that it costs very little money to make one. With a kit that can be purchased for just about a hundred bucks, any standard socket can be turned into a Revolimb. Considering the fact that having complete control over the fit is now possible, this also means that fewer test sockets will be made and fewer upgrades will be necessary, as a limb changes over time. A hundred bucks is nothing compared to those costs.

So you can be happy with your new iPhone or your new flat screen TV. Although it was never wrapped in shiny paper and topped off with a bow, I got a present that changed my life in a different way. It will probably change the prosthetic market, but to this individual amputee, having a socket that I control is a priceless gift. It gives me comfort and freedom, with every single step I take.