|Originally Aired: September 19, 2006
New High-tech Prostheses Being Developed for Amputees
|As the number of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with missing limbs rises, researchers are working on developing better high-tech prostheses for amputees.|
JEFFREY KAYE, Reporter, KCET: On a clear, crisp fall morning
in La Jolla, California, athletes gather to compete in a
triathlon. As participants prepared for the race, it looked like an ordinary
sporting event, except that many of these competitors weren't made just of
flesh and bone.
Sponsored by the Challenged Athletes Foundation, this annual
competition is geared towards the physically disabled, many of them amputees. As
the race began, the athletes faced a daunting course, starting with a 1.2-mile-long
swim in the Pacific Ocean. Once back on dry
land, they competed in a 56-mile-long cycling leg, followed by a 13-mile run.
This triathlon not only demonstrated the strength and
stamina of disabled athletes, it also showcased recent advances in prosthetic
technology, developments that are benefiting the disabled around the world,
including some of America's
nearly 2 million amputees.
SARAH REINERTSEN, Amputee: I've been an amputee for over 20
years, so I have seen such a tremendous change in the technology, and truly the
breakthroughs that I've experienced have helped me to live a fuller life.
JEFFREY KAYE: Sarah Reinertsen is something of a superstar
in the amputee community. Born with a deformed leg that was amputated when she
was 7 years old, she's crashed through barrier after barrier as a disabled
athlete, from being the youngest member of the U.S. Paralympic team, to becoming
the first woman to finish the Ironman Triathlon World Championship on an
During her athletic career, Reinertsen says, new prosthetic
devices, such as a specially designed racing foot, had been essential to her
Prosthetics move forward
SARAH REINERTSEN: The design is based on the hind leg of a
cheetah, which is the fastest land animal. When I come down on that foot, it
compressed and, then when I release, come off that toe, it's actually giving me
a bit of a bounce, a bit of a push, which helps propel me to the next step,
thus making me faster.
JEFFREY KAYE: Advances in prosthetics include the
development of new, tough, but lightweight materials, better shapes and
designs, and most recently the increased use of computers embedded within
artificial limbs. They allow prostheses to more closely mimic the movements and
agility of real limbs.
PETER HARSCH, Ossur: We've made the technology smarter. Not
only it's mimicking natural function, it's actually thinking smarter, thinking
faster, outthinking just the typical mechanical knee systems or regular foot
JEFFREY KAYE: Peter Harsch, seen here at a mobility clinic
for amputees, is a prosthetist with Ossur, an Icelandic-based manufacturer of
artificial limbs. Among the company's wares is a computerized prosthetic knee. It
does thousands of calculations a second to keep the wearer quite literally on
his or her feet.
PETER HARSCH: It knows when the patient is on its toe, and
they know when it's on their heel. And it knows when it's in space or in a
swing mode. So what you have is you have a very smart software package that's
constantly downloading data.
JEFFREY KAYE: Some of the advances in prosthetic technology
have come, as they long have, as a result of war. According to the U.S.
Department of Veterans Affairs, some 300 American soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan have lost limbs.
One of them is Army Captain David Rozelle, who participated
in the La Jolla triathlon. He was wounded in Iraq in 2003.
CAPT. DAVID ROZELLE, U.S. Army: I ran over an anti-tank mine
that the terrorists had laid in my route, which blew up underneath the Humvee,
destroyed the right front end of my Humvee, and, unfortunately, my right foot.
JEFFREY KAYE: Two years after his foot and ankle were blown
off, Rozelle became the first amputee to return to combat in Iraq. He's also competed in
numerous athletic competitions.
Rozelle says military amputees, like disabled athletes, are
changing expectations about what amputees can do. Because of their youth and
fitness, they're also demanding more from their artificial limbs and from the
people who make them.
CAPT. DAVID ROZELLE: Our amputees say, within the year,
"I want to run a marathon." It's those soldiers that are driving the
research, driving the science, to make things now to give these American heroes
the ability to be able.
JEFFREY KAYE: According to the Department of Veterans
Affairs, the government is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on
prosthetic research and development. Researchers forecast a day where amputees
will be outfitted with bio-hybrid prostheses that they will control just by
Maurice Mulligan is a prosthetist with the Veterans
MAURICE MULLIGAN, Veterans Administration: There's research
going on now where they link into the nervous system so there will be no
learning curve. In other words, a guy loses an arm. You put the arm on. The
same brain pathways that activated it before will activate his artificial hand.
Growing pains for prosthetics
JEFFREY KAYE: But steps forward in prosthetic technology
have been accompanied by growing cost concerns. A state-of-the-art artificial
leg, for instance, can come with a more than $30,000 price tag.
Military amputees have the expense of their prosthetics
covered by the government, but many in the civilian world don't have that
Laura Brumund lost her leg 14 years ago in an automobile
accident. She's eager to get a new prosthetic leg with a computerized knee, but
her insurer has twice denied her request for coverage.
LAURA BRUMUND, Amputee: They're saying that it's
experimental knee, that it's not a necessity. You know, I'm 33 years old. I
have a 4-year-old son I need to keep up with. And I'm pretty active. I'm in the
gym, you know, three to five times a week. And I think it would be a perfect
fit for me if I could get that knee.
JEFFREY KAYE: Parents with amputee children face another
challenge: As the youngsters grow, their artificial limbs must be frequently
SARAH REINERTSEN: When I was a kid, my health insurance
company said the policy originally stated we will give you one artificial leg
for your lifetime. I was 7 years old when I had my amputation. How am I going
to use the same leg for my entire life from the age of 7 on?
JEFFREY KAYE: Away from athletic competitions, Sarah
Reinertsen has become an advocate for expanding insurance coverage to amputees.
SARAH REINERTSEN: They're capping now $1,100 for the
lifetime of an amputee. So they're not saying, "Look, we'll only give you
one leg." "We'll only give you one payout for $1,100 for your
lifetime." Eleven hundred dollars isn't going to even get you the whole
You know, my full prosthetic knee, foot, socket -- the
socket is so expensive, because it's the custom part -- you're looking about
$30,000 to $36,000, up to $40,000 for an above-knee amputee. So $1,100 isn't
even going to get you a toe.
JEFFREY KAYE: To increase access to new artificial limbs,
the Amputee Coalition of America is lobbying state governments to draft
legislation requiring insurance companies to cover prosthetics. Such bills have
passed in Colorado, New
Hampshire, Maine and Rhode Island.
But the insurance industry argues such laws amount to health
care mandates. It also contends that paying for expensive artificial limbs for relatively
few people boosts health care costs for the wider population of the insured.
At the triathlon, the joys of competition replaced concerns
about costs and coverage. Participants here said, as technology improves, the
divide between the able and the disabled will inevitably narrow.
CAPT. DAVID ROZELLE, U.S. Army: I'd say to the able athletes
out there, you know, that are worried about us having some mechanical
advantage, well, sure, watch out. You know, we're coming after you.
JEFFREY KAYE: Some experts in artificial limbs foresee the
day when amputee athletes will be able to beat their fully-abled competitors.
COACH: Awesome. This is her first time running, you guys. That's
awesome. Feeling good?