Wounded Warriors Push Improvements in Prosthetic Technology

By LAURA LOREK
Publisher and reporter with Silicon Hills News

Melissa Stockwell, U.S. Paralympic Bronze medal winner. Photo courtesy of Ottobock.

Biomechanical technology is enabling wounded warriors to live full lives and do incredible things like pilot a plane, ski, skydive and so much more.

And Ottobock’s prosthetic technology is helping to bridge the gap between human limitation and human potential, said Cali Solorio, marketing manager with Ottobock North America, based in Austin. She moderated the South by Southwest panel on “How wounded warriors are transforming biotech” Friday morning at the Austin Convention Center.

“These devices really help these individuals and other amputees live a fuller life and give them freedom of movement” Solorio said.

Ottobock, which is a division of Otto Bock Healthcare GmbH, based in Duderstadt, Germany, created the X3, an advanced microprocessor prosthetic leg, in a collaboration with the U.S. military.

The highly inspirational panel featured three wounded warriors who have become athletes and accomplished amazing goals with their prosthetic legs. And in the process, they pushed Ottobock to develop even more technologically advanced prosthesis.

Having a prosthetic limb doesn’t limit a person, and can challenge them to push the limits of their abilities, said Melissa Stockwell, one of the panelists. She won a bronze medal in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games in the sport of Para triathlon. At 24, she was the first female from the Iraq war to lose her limb in active combat.

Stockwell did most of her recovery at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and that’s where she met Heath Calhoun, an Army veteran who had lost both legs in combat in Iraq. They pushed themselves in physical therapy to do more and more each day.

“It’s like you feed off each other and what each other can do,” she said.

During her rehabilitation time at Walter Reed, Stockwell saw others that had worse injuries and she started to accept the loss of her leg and find her new normal.

“Almost 13 years later I’ve done more with my life with one leg than I ever would have done with two,” she said.

Calhoun lost his legs during combat on Nov. 7th, 2003 at the age of 24.

“It was a completely life changing incident as you guys can imagine,” Calhoun said. “I had a year and half old son and I didn’t really know where life was going to take me.”

In a wheelchair, he couldn’t perform his duties in the Army anymore. And he struggled for two and a half years to learn to walk and to learn to use his prosthetic legs.

“It wasn’t until about four years down the road I got comfortable with my legs. Then I began driving, living life,” he said.

He didn’t really notice the transition to prosthetics until the day his first leg broke.

“Then I realized how much a prosthetic had become a part of me,” he said.

U.S. Air Force Captain Christy Wise lost her leg in April of 2015 when she was struck by a hit and run boat while paddle boarding in Florida. She had just returned from Afghanistan.

“For me it was always how do I get back to what I was doing before,” Wise said. “I’m not going to let this change me, I’m just going to have to learn some more tricks.”

The community of wounded veterans help each other, she said. She’s the first female amputee who returned to flying in the Department of Defense.

“Five guys did it before me,” she said.

All five of those U.S. Air Force pilots called her in the hospital to encourage her to recover and take steps to get back to being a pilot again.

And despite her injury, Wise returned to flying and piloted her first C-130 flight in July of 2016. She also recently participated in the Invictus Games as an athlete and is training to participate in the Paralympics.

“If you can do everything else everyone else is doing, you’re taking the choice out of their hands,” she said. “They can’t say no.”

Veterans push technology and innovation forward because they want to get back to active duty, Wise said.

“We just don’t take no for an answer,” Wise said.

But it’s not just wounded warriors that can benefit from the technologically advanced prosthesis, she said.

“Life just happens,” she said. “We’re here to show everyone that it is possible to live a full life.”

In fact, Wise said she had terrible landings skydiving when she had two legs and now she has great landings.

The X3, which is waterproof, has different settings that allow for different movements, said Stockwell.

“It’s pretty fascinating to see the change in development and technology throughout the years,” Calhoun said.

He got his first set of legs in 2004 and he shorted out both legs in 2007 from water at a concert, he said. He is now an Alpine skier and he plays hockey in his prosthetic legs.

“It’s made our lives possible to be as active as we are,” he said. “I’m forever grateful for the technology I have.”

Still, he would like to see even more improvement. He envisions a prosthetic leg linked through a neural network to his brain that would allow him to control his leg and his foot. For example, he likes to ride Harley Davidson motorcycles and he would like to shift with his foot.

Stockwell has all different kinds of prosthetics that allow her to move better in different sports. She has a bike leg featuring a knee with a free switch hinge and a carbon fiber foot and for running, she has a carbon blade with a foot.

Wise has five prosthetic legs and she has named them all. Her everyday leg is named Xenia after the Princess Warrior, her water leg is Ariel. And her bike leg is called Pedalina.

“I get a new leg for a new activity and I have everyone come up with names for it,” she said. “I know that I’m lucky, a lot of civilians don’t have five legs.”

Calhoun said he has everyday legs, running legs, biking legs, but he uses those so he can walk all day and do every day activities.

“My goal is just to get back to being a regular guy,” he said.

It’s becoming more accepted now to see someone with a disability and the media plays a big part in that by showing people with prosthetics on television, Stockwell said.

And kids are growing up and seeing people with prosthetic legs more often and they think they are cool, she said. Her leg is patriotic and is painted red, white and blue and features stars.

“I enjoy showing my leg off,” Stockwell said. When a kid says, he look it’s a robot and points to her, she thinks that is great.

It has gotten more and more accepted, Calhoun said.

“They see Ironman and they think you’re a transformer,” he said. “They don’t look at people any differently. They just see something that is cool.”

People need to understand that people with disabilities are people, Calhoun said.

“This is how I get around during the day, it’s not who I am,” he said.

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