ADVANCES IN PROSTHETICS
For amputees, a chance to run
Soldiers who lost legs or feet in Iraq can now do more than ever before
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Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle San Antonio Bureau
FORT SAM HOUSTON – Of the nearly 400 soldiers who have lost limbs in the Iraq war, only a few dozen have been able to return to combat. Most simply aspire to resume a “normal” life, to be able to play with their kids or take a stroll with their spouse.
Now the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs are collaborating to enable wounded soldiers with limb loss to achieve rising expectations for being highly active, with help from the new generation of prosthetic legs and feet.
In a demonstration Friday for VA workers, several high-performing athletes who lost limbs showed how prosthetic devices with microprocessors and Bluetooth wireless technology have helped their performance and provided inspiration to wounded troops and the therapists.
Chang Wong, a recently retired Army sergeant who lost both legs to a roadside bomb in Iraq a year ago, jumped and pivoted sharply on his two prosthetic feet, which work like springs and are shaped like a ‘C.’ Though the feet hardly look normal, they help him do what he wants — “play basketball like I used to, and play all sports like I used to,” Wong said.
VA health science researcher Bob Gailey said such ambitions, while difficult to achieve, are typical and the government is striving to help fulfill them.
“The goal is that they will return to a normal life. The military has invested a lot of time, energy, money and technology to ensure that those soldiers who served us are able to return to the life that they once had,” Gailey said.
Although it’s nothing new for the military and VA to provide prosthetics, what’s changed is the sophistication of the devices, he said.
“What we’re seeing are the advances in computerized technology and carbon graphite composite technology. These soldiers once expected only to be able to walk. Now the expectation is they can run,” Gailey said.
Mark Benveniste, staff prosthetist at the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Houston, came to see the latest devices demonstrated by Wong and other war veterans and athletes.
“It’s been very inspiring to be here, and I’m particularly excited that the VA Hospital will strive to meet these kinds of standards,” he said.
“I’ve worked with some guys who are capable of jogging, but never this level,” he said, adding that many of the veterans helped in Houston had limb loss from diabetes, trauma and other noncombat causes. Vietnam war-era veterans are among those seeking updated devices, he added.
The most advanced devices include power knees with artificial intelligence and feet that communicate to each other using Bluetooth technology to coordinate gait, said John Fergason, lead prosthetist at Brooke Army Medical Center, one of only two military amputee treatment centers in the U.S.
“A lot of what you’re seeing now are ways to integrate sensation back into the prosthetic devices, so you can feel where your foot is on the ground,” Fergason said.
Some of the advanced devices, made of superstrong yet light materials, including titan- ium, are “meant for a subpopulation of very high activity levels,” Fergason said. Among them are the Paralympic and Ironman world-class competitors who demonstrated some of the devices Friday.
“The legs don’t make them run. They make those legs run,” Fergason said.
New face of war: female amputees
Women have a larger military role in combat — and among Americans with disabilities
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WASHINGTON – Her body had been maimed by war. Dawn Halfaker lay unconscious at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, her parents at her bedside and her future suddenly unsure.
A rocket-propelled grenade had exploded in her Humvee, ravaging her arm and shoulder.
In June 2004, she became the newest soldier on a path almost unknown in the U.S.: a female combat amputee.
It was a distinction she did not dwell on during days of intense pain and repeated surgeries, or even as she struggled to eat on her own, write left-handed and use an artificial limb.
But scattered among her experiences were moments when she was aware that few women before her had rethought their lives, their bodies, their choices, in this way.
She was part of a new generation of women who have lost pieces of themselves in war, experiencing the same physical trauma and psychological anguish as their male counterparts.
But for female combat amputees has come something else: a quiet sense of wonder about how the public views them and how they will reconcile themselves.
Their numbers are small, 11 in three years of war, compared with more than 350 men.
They are not quite a band of sisters, but more a chain of women linked by history, experience and fate.
They have discovered, at various points of their recovery, that gender has made a difference — “not better or worse,” as Halfaker put it, “just different.”
An altered realityFor Halfaker, an athlete with a strong sense of her physical self, the world was transformed June 19, 2004, on a night patrol through Baqubah, Iraq.
Out of nowhere came the rocket-propelled grenade, exploding behind her head.
Another soldier’s arm was sheared off. Blood was everywhere.
“Get us out of the kill zone!” she yelled to the Humvee driver.
Halfaker was a 24-year-old first lieutenant, a platoon leader who two months earlier had led her unit in repulsing a six-hour attack on a police station in Diyala province.
As medics worked to stabilize her, she warned: “You bastards better not cut my arm off.”
In the hospital, there was no other way to save her life.
At first, in the early days, she tried to ignore the burns on her face, her wounded right shoulder, the fact of her missing arm. She had been a basketball standout at West Point, a starting guard through four years of college. She was fit, young, energetic.
Suddenly, she was a disabled vet.
“I didn’t want to know what I looked like,” she recalled recently. She asked her mother to cover the mirror in her hospital room.
A new pathLong out of Walter Reed, Halfaker is deeply into a life remade.
It has been 17 months since she was wounded, and her favorite yoga tape is playing on a small VCR in an apartment in Washington. Halfaker barely seems to notice her image, which once was difficult to bear and is now reflected in a large mirror: red hair and trim, athletic build, one arm extended above her head.
In place of her missing limb is a T-shirt sleeve, empty, hanging. Following along with the yoga tape, Halfaker visualizes that she still has a right arm; it helps her balance.
She retired from the Army as a captain — a tough choice only four years out of West Point, but one she made as she tried to imagine fitting back into military culture. Without her arm, she could no longer do push-ups or tie her combat boots.
Lately, she works at an office in Arlington, Va., mostly as a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency consultant.
Halfaker has made all sorts of adjustments. She types on a computer one-handed. Drives a car with a push-button ignition.
Halfaker goes without a prosthetic when she is jogging through the nation’s capital or snowboarding in Colorado.
“I never really wanted to hide the fact that I was an amputee,” she said, “but I never wanted it to be the central focus of my life.”
For some men, she said, it seems a badge of honor that they do not mind showing.
“For a woman, at least for me, it’s not at all. … The fact that I only have one arm, I’m OK with that, but I want to be able to walk around and look like everyone else and not attract attention to myself.”
TRIPLES with EMMA