Geek Speaks Fiction: On Researching Prosthetics

Lizbeth Selvig lives in Minnesota with her best friend (aka her husband), and a gray Arabian gelding. After working as a newspaper journalist and magazine editor, and raising an equine veterinarian daughter and a talented musician son, she won RWA’s prestigious Golden Heart® Contest in 2010 with her contemporary romance The Rancher and the Rock Star. In her spare time, she loves to hike, quilt, read, horseback ride, and spend time with her new granddaughter. She also has four-legged grandchildren–more than twenty–including a wallaby, two alpacas, a donkey, a pig, a sugar glider, and many dogs, cats, and horses (pics of all appear on her website www.lizbethselvig.com). She loves connecting with readers–contact her any time!

Geeking Out on Prosthetic Legs

Hi, GeekMom readers! I’m so honored to be here today–this is such an amazing, smart blog site, and I thank you so much for inviting me to be part of it.

I’d like to start by admitting that I know how unromantic the title for my guest post sounds–especially when I’m here to talk about a romance novel! But when I was working on my newest book, The Bride Wore Starlight, I understood I was trying to write a love story built around a difficult and generally un-romantic subject: the loss of a limb. I knew, too, that I had to get my research right or risk writing a story about a hero that was, at best, cliché and, at worst, insulting. Naturally, I didn’t want either to happen.

The Bride Wore Starlight is about two people dealing with both emotional and physical wounds: Joely Crockett, a former beauty queen, who has recently been injured in a serious car accident, leaving her permanently lame and scarred, and Alec Morrissey, a former rodeo champion who lost a leg in Iraq.

Lizbeth Selvig, image copyright LIzbeth Selvig.
Lizbeth Selvig, image copyright LIzbeth Selvig.

Although the issues they face are difficult, the book is not too serious and definitely not sad! In fact, some of the things I discovered while researching for Alec, especially, were not depressing but quite uplifting and led to some fun in the story.

But I did have to start from ground zero when it came to writing about a hero who was missing his leg from just below the knee. Here’s just a little of what I learned.

The huge array of prosthetics available today is stunning. From the very simple to the electronically complex, there’s a type of full leg, half-leg, foot, or blade for every need. I discovered fixed limbs, articulated limbs, electronic joints, and running, jumping, or hiking blades of every length.

It was difficult to sort through all the possibilities for Alec, a man who by the time we meet him has had three years to get used to his disability, so certainly knows his prosthetics better than I do. In the end, he didn’t need running blades, but he did need a dynamic foot and ankle joint because he walks so much and also rides horses on occasion.

I was also amazed at the different attachment technologies–from silicone, suction cup-type sockets that are the most common, to myoelectric sockets and shafts that react to micro-pulses from the muscles and nerves in the remaining real leg. In addition to technology, there are prosthetic sleeves–colorful aesthetic coverings for artificial legs that come in every pattern you can imagine, from all over horse prints to leopard skin to bright geometric patterns.

The last thing I needed to know before I could write was what a residual limb actually looked like. If there was a part of the research that “shocked” me it was this–because when I Googled “amputated limb” I not only found pictures of the smooth, healed skin of a stump (a term the medical community uses, and many amputees use as well, but which a few find insensitive), but I got graphic pictures of an actual amputation procedure.

If anything made me realize that I wasn’t writing about something slightly glamorous, despite all the technology and inspiring stories of athletes, dancers, and heroes, it was seeing in full color the tragedy of losing a limb. More than anything else, this made me want to do justice to this story and to the men and women who have gone through such a traumatic experience.

After it was gathered, all of my new knowledge had to be synthesized into creating the injured part of Alec’s life–and, of course, into giving Alec what he told me he needed! Eventually, I meshed it all into scenes that came out like the following–when Alec and Joely are finally brave enough to share their scars with each other:

He got to his feet and pulled down his jeans. The socket that cradled Alec’s real leg was colorful, and it delighted Joely in a fascinated kind of way. A swirling rainbow decorated the top of the prosthetic and the covering that tapered along its carbon fiber shaft. He stood before her in his boxers, his right leg as beautiful and muscled as an athlete’s, his left thigh muscled and strong, the knee half covered with a silicone sleeve that flexed when he moved. The limb itself was anticlimactic–dark and powerful-looking, but attached so securely that it was just him. The bionic man. And at the moment he was hers.

And he had body parts that were much more interesting than the artificial leg.

“You’re pretty gorgeous,” she said. He caught her staring at the tented boxers, and he burst out laughing until it rolled over them both.

He sat on the sleeping bag and silently, deftly, removed the artificial limb. “You’re amazing,” he said when he’d set it aside.

His stump did divert her attention from the part of him she really wanted to explore. The first thing she noticed was the smoothness of the skin and then the redness along the front and sides.

“Oh, Alec, it looks rubbed. I’m sorry you couldn’t take it off before.”

“It gets sore, but not painful. And having it off now makes everything fine.”

“Honest?”

“Honest. Now lie back and let me take care of you for a minute.”

That’s so simplistic compared to the pages of detailed information I collected. I didn’t use all the info on trans-femoral and trans-tibial amputations, or on the huge costs and limited availability for the most advanced prosthetics. But I hope the research shows and this scene, and other scenes like it, came off as realistic and sympathetic.

I definitely had a geeky time reading everything I could about artificial legs!

As I mentioned earlier, The Bride Wore Starlight is absolutely not a book about tragedy and amputation. It’s the story of two perfectly imperfect people who learn how to see and accept true love in a world where beauty and flawlessness is prized, almost above all else.

Along the way there’s also laughter, and fun, and arguments, and snarkiness, and kisses–because after all is said and done and the research is finished, love is about two human beings, whatever their baggage, finding their happily ever after.

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Writer, Mom, Geek and Superhero. though usually not all four on the same day. Author of the award-winning Phoenix Institute Superhero series and the steampunk novel, The Curse of the Brimstone Contract.