Top-of-the-line prosthetics have improved by leaps and bounds
The Invictus Games are an inspiring display of athleticism and the human drive to overcome adversity. But the hardest thing that many of the competitors will do this week is walk to their competition venues.
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Steve Murgatroyd can walk up stairs normally, run in the rain and, soon, he’ll be able to ride his motorbike again with his prosthetic leg.
He has an Ottobock X3, an advanced microprocessor leg that uses high-tech sensors to mimic what his nerves and muscles used to do naturally, and it’s the leg he thinks will let him return to frontline service in the Canadian infantry.
For now, he’ll use it to compete in Toronto at the Invictus Games, an eight-day sporting competition for ill and injured armed forces members and veterans from 17 countries.
With 550 athletes competing in 12 sports as diverse as running, swimming, powerlifting and wheelchair rugby, it’s an inspiring display of athleticism and the human drive to overcome adversity.
But, in reality, the hardest thing that Murgatroyd and many of the competitors will do this week is walk to their competition venues.
Regular life, with all its variables — tripping over kids’ toys in the living room, walking on an uneven sidewalk or running to catch the bus — demands much more from a prosthetic leg than sprinting 100 metres down the track.
“It looks fine, minute to minute, but any distance of walking is extremely difficult,” says Murgatroyd, who competes in archery and the precision driving challenge.
It’s a similar story for the co-captain of Canada’s team, Maj. Simon Mailloux, who will swap out his X3 for a running blade when he competes on the track, or plays sitting volleyball without a prosthetic.
That just walking can be hard with a leg that costs $100,000 and looks strong enough to kick a car across the parking lot is not what many people expect to hear.
Top-of-the-line prosthetic devices have come so far — the materials they’re made of and the sophisticated technology embedded within them — that people raised on action movies and science fiction easily leap to the conclusion that they’re as good as, or perhaps even better, than what most of us are born with.
“Kids, especially, they see my leg and they think I’m Iron Man and I can fly and things like that and part of me wants to let them believe that,” Mailloux says with a chuckle.
“Technology will come to a point, I truly believe in my lifetime, where we exceed our capacity, but we’re not there yet. Now, my leg almost does what it used to.”
Prosthetics have come light years from the days of Terry Fox, who used an awkward skip-hop stride during his 1980 run across Canada because of the limitations of his prosthetic leg and old-style mechanical knee.
But the misconception that prosthetics are so advanced that they’re nearing the scenarios played out in Hollywood is something that Gary Sjonnesen deals with all the time. He’s the director of clinical services at the Canadian headquarters of Ottobock, the German-based company that manufactures the X3 and provides technical services at this week’s Invictus Games.
He remembers the controversy around whether South African double amputee Oscar Pistorius had a superhuman advantage because of his carbon-fibre running blades and so shouldn’t have been allowed to run with able-bodied athletes in the 400-metre event at the 2012 London Olympics.
He shakes his head and goes on to explain that a sprinter’s natural foot and leg is far more efficient at storing and transferring energy than any mechanical spring currently in production.
“If we could develop a machine that could give back 250 per cent over what we put in, we’d be millionaires,” Sjonnesen says.
And, closer to home, he overheard his young son telling his friends it didn’t matter if he lost a leg or an arm because his dad could just make him a new one.
At Ottobock’s Burlington facility, with the cupboards and shelves full of titanium and carbon-fibre prosthetic devices that would look at home on the set of a Terminator movie and a lab designing silicone overlays that can match real skin right down to freckles and scars, it’s easy to see why people expect so much.
Sjonnesen picks up a bebionic hand that looks like it could crush steel just by making a fist. It can’t. It also can’t be used to write normally with independent finger movement.
But it’s an enormous advance in prosthetics because, among other things, it can grasp keys to unlock a door and when holding a glass, it knows to tighten the grip as the glass fills and gets heavier.
Those are the sorts of everyday life challenges that upper limb amputees actually face and getting a hand like this one can be life transforming.
It’s the same thing with the X3.
It’s so advanced compared with the mechanical knee that Murgatroyd was first fitted with when he lost his leg two summers ago after a car crashed into his motorcycle that he remembers exactly when he got it: Oct. 26, 2016.
“That’s a day I won’t forget. It makes such a huge difference in everything,” says the infantryman, who works in recruiting in Truro, N.S.
“It makes me feel a bit normal again. I know that leg won’t let me fall down.”
The X3, thanks to its five sensors including a gyroscope and accelerometer, knows exactly where Murgatroyd’s leg is in space and how fast it’s moving. It’s constantly assessing and computing every hundredth of a second so it doesn’t just know where the leg is now, it knows where it should be going and what to do if something goes wrong.
“If something happens that is not anticipated like a stumble then it reacts really quickly to change its function,” Sjonnesen says.
The knee can lock down the hydraulics to increase resistance just like a quad muscle would do to stop a fall.
Murgatroyd hopes to return to frontline service with his prosthetic leg — something that Mailloux has already done.
He lost his leg in Afghanistan in 2007 when his vehicle hit an improvised explosive device. In 2009 he returned there for another tour of duty, becoming the first Canadian soldier with a prosthetic leg to return to frontline service.
It wasn’t easy. Ask Mailloux what is the hardest thing he does with his prosthetic leg and the answer has nothing to do with sport.
“Anything I do in the infantry: walking on uneven ground, walking over a branch or rocks requires my foot not being stuck and trusting that my knee will understand what I’m doing,” says Mailloux, who commands a company of 110 soldiers and 15 armoured vehicles.
“I did the same job, I wasn’t as fast as or as strong as I used to be but the job was done for sure and I had a better understanding of the consequences of our actions and our decisions.”
The X3, the original version of which was developed in collaboration with the U.S. military, is waterproof and comes with programmable modes for activities such as running, biking and golf.
But, overall, the biggest advance with microprocessor knees and the reason they were designed in the first place is that they reduce falls — the biggest problem for amputees.
In a 12-month period, about 4 per cent of able-bodied people will fall; it’s 66 per cent for amputees, Sjonnesen says.
That’s a big deal because the vast majority of amputees bare little resemblance to the competitors at the Invictus Games or the even more elite athletes who compete in the Paralympics.
“They’re the ones that get the press and it’s good to expose people to it,” Sjonnesen says of the educational benefit of para sport.
“It does create some misconceptions mind you (because) 80 per cent of amputees are diabetics and they’re just trying to live day-to-day in their house,” he says.
“The other thing that really drives me nuts is when I’m talking to funding agencies or even lay people and they talk about X3 and say, ‘Well, that’s a Cadillac or Mercedes,’ No. it’s not. It might be a bicycle compared to what they lost.”