Today is the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings, where sixteen people lost limbs. I saw something on the web about one of the victims, Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a dancer, who wanted to be able to dance again. Hugh Herr, who heads the Biomechatronics research group at the MIT Media lab, heard her plight and chose to make her wish come true. His group spent nearly seven months studying dancers and created a leg for her to dance on. About this project Herr said, “It took 3.5 seconds for her to lose her leg and 200 days for us to make her a new one.” Herr, 49, lost his legs during a rock climbing accident when he was a teen. He began creating his own prosthetics and was able to climb again, much to the surprise of his doctors.
Most people’s first experience with a prosthetic device is probably the image of a pirate with a peg leg and a hook for his hand. I always think of Captain Ahab from Moby Dick clomping around the deck of the Pequod in search of the whale who bit off his leg. As an artsy kid, I did wonder if people wearing peg legs ever wanted to decorate them. I remember being fascinated by Barbara Boggs Sigmund, who was the mayor of the borough of Princeton, NJ in the eighties. She had lost an eye to cancer and subsequently matched her eye patch to her outfits when making public appearances.
I’ve had three “amputee” experiences that have caused me to spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about prosthetics. My first memorable experience of seeing someone with missing limbs was in 1968 when I was four-years old and heading up the steps to Wincliff, our swim club in Winfield, IL. A little boy with little to no legs was vaulting himself up the steps right near me. I was shocked. While he merrily swam in the baby pool, I was curled on my lounge chair, terrified. I didn’t sleep for weeks worrying about this experience.
My next significant event was in college in 1984. One of my closest friends had a lovely roommate, Kim. She had been born with limb issues owing to her mom having been given the drug Thalidomide, while pregnant. I would see Kim on campus, walking, sometimes wearing a hook or what appeared to be a useless fake arm that looked real from afar. She seemed to prefer the hook, and once I got to know her better, she actually seemed to prefer nothing at all, using the stump of her left arm quite adeptly. On one visit to her room, I noticed an arm in her closet. She told me it was one of the first robotic arms, costing about $30,000 and that her father had provided it for her. She preferred not to wear it.
The last event was in the 90s when I worked for an insurance company. The manager of my department always kept one hand in his coat pocket. He ate like this, drove like this, and went through papers on his desk like this. Rumor had it that he had lost part of his hand in a fireworks accident.
What struck me about all of these experiences is that the little boy in pool seemed perfectly content with his lack of legs, hopping up the steps and swimming in the pool. My college acquaintance also seemed happier without prosthetics but was aware of the comfort it gave others to look as normal as possible. And my boss? Trying to appear to make himself look completely normal. This hiding just fueled the speculation of why that hand remained in his pocket.
I realized that the discomfort of the masses with amputees and perhaps the amputee’s desire not to look different, probably led to the creation of prosthetics that look like real limbs and were often limiting and uncomfortable, instead of letting form follow function. Thankfully, that is changing and prosthetics are now making their wearers look and act superhuman and cool.
I became curious about cool-looking prosthetics while I was watching an indescribable art film, The Cremaster Cycle by Matthew Barney. All I can say is that it has to be seen to be experienced and I’m not sure what I experienced. But I was struck when one of the actresses, who played six different characters, appeared to be walking on really interesting legs. One pair looked like glass and the other like cheetah (the animal not the blades) legs in the film. I couldn’t figure out how they did it because surely an amputee wouldn’t be doing something like this! I discovered the actress was Aimee Mullins, a female Oscar Pistorious (without killing anyone). She is a Paralympics athlete, actress, model and motivational speaker. I went on to watch both her and Hugh Herr’s TED Talks. If you are not familiar with TED Talks (Technology, Education and Design) you are missing out on a very powerful tool devoted to spreading ideas through 18-minute talks by people from all different disciplines and cultures.
In one of Aimee’s talks, she speaks about being in college and tired of being given prosthetic legs that didn’t meet her needs. She put a call out to innovators outside the medical field to use their talents to design legs for her and she got a big response. She worked with engineers, fashion designers, and sculptors. She now has twelve pairs of prosthetic legs. She tells the story about being out with a friend and wearing legs that made her six inches taller than normal. The friend whined: “It’s not fair that you can change your height.” Mullins was floored that her friend was actually jealous!
Upon doing research I was amazed to find that a couple of organizations are making beautiful prosthetics. They are Scott Summit of Bespoke Innovations and Sophie de Oliveira Barata’s Alternative Limb Project. While I have to say that I would never want to be in the position of needing a prosthetic, I am a little jealous…
Kathleen Thometz is an artist, writer and board member of the Riverside Arts Center. She lives with her husband, kids and doodle dogs. You can experience more about her at www.kathleenthometz.com