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'Exponential' progress in prosthetics helps ease tough path for amputees

People who lost arms or legs in the Boston Marathon bombings – and in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars – are among some 2 million Americans coping with limb loss. Emerging technologies and expanded peer support programs are helping.

By Staff writer / June 12, 2013

Dr. Jeffrey Cain, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, cycles, snowboards, and even flies planes. He lost his legs in a plane accident in 1996.

Courtesy of Jeffrey Cain

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Los Angeles

Response to the victims who lost limbs in the Boston Marathon bombings has thrown a spotlight on just how far the field of limb replacement and rehabilitation has come in a short period. Not only were doctors on the scene with extensive field experience with limb trauma, but a broad coalition of manufacturers also stepped up to pledge an array of prostheses, no matter the cost. Waiting in the wings has been an extensive peer support program designed to help amputees navigate the difficult road ahead.

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"People who lost legs in this tragedy will face many challenges," says Rose Bissonnette, founder of the New England peer visiting program for the Amputee Coalition, a national advocacy group assisting the 16 people who lost limbs in the Boston bombings. But, she adds, there are people and equipment and services that no previous generation has had.

"Those who lost limbs will face many issues besides what [prosthetic] leg to use," says David Shurna, executive director of the nonprofit No Barriers USA, which has launched a fund to provide the most advanced athletic devices available to the athletes among the Boston bombing victims. "We want to help turn adversity into opportunity."

The terrible efficiency of the Boston bombs in targeting lower limbs has highlighted a growing population of Americans – currently some 2 million – living with limb loss.

Yet this comes at a time when the prosthetics industry itself is undergoing unprecedented expansion. There's the reality of carbon-fiber blades, which allowed South African double amputee Oscar Pistorius to compete in the 2012 London Olympics. And the goal of creating artificial hands nuanced enough to play a Brahms concerto has already led to prostheses that give people the ability to open a soda can or slap a high-five.

But obtaining the proper prosthesis is just the beginning. Other challenges include learning how to use the device; dealing with long-term, specialized needs; and paying sometimes extraordinary costs.

Still, hope is palpable, as limb-replacement technology has progressed faster than many thought possible a mere decade ago.

"There is so much happening in the research world: It is not linear, it is exponential because there are so many more people working on these problems," says double amputee Hugh Herr, an avid mountain climber and associate professor who directs the Biomechatronics group at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass. For 20-year-old bombing victims being fitted for artificial limbs now, he says, "by the time they are 40, the bionic legs we have in society will be extraordinary and will make today's limbs look prehistoric."

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Danny Bent poses at the starting line of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass.

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