Bionic ankle to help SC man thrive after amputation

Greenville NewsJanuary 15, 2014 

— After his leg was crushed at work leaving him an amputee, James Jackson worried whether he’d ever be able to walk or go bowling or play with his young children again.

On Wednesday, he realized he will be able to do all that, and much more.

“This is really exciting,” said the 32-year-old Greenville man as he tried on his new computer-powered BioM foot-ankle prosthesis. “It’s a new beginning for me.”

Jackson was working as a truck driver last Jan. 24 when a piece of heavy equipment he was moving landed on his left ankle. Though doctors tried to save his leg, in the end, they had to amputate it below the knee.

Before his injury, Jackson was athletic, playing football and running track among other sports. He enjoyed going to the beach and to the park with his children, now 15, 5 and 4.

But as he lay in his hospital bed, he feared for the future, thinking about the children and his wife, Shalanda.

“At that time, I was thinking that I’d never walk again,” he said. “But I kept my faith in God, and my family and friends. If it wasn’t for them, I would have given up. But I didn’t.”

Instead, he put his heart and soul into his often-taxing rehabilitation, thinking about the day when he’d be able to play with the kids again.

During physical therapy, he was introduced to Brian Kaluf, a prosthetist at Ability Prosthetics & Orthotics on the Eastside, who helped him through getting his first prosthetic leg. Then Kaluf told him about the new BioM prosthesis.

Developed with funding from investment firms and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Army by Dr. Hugh Herr, director of the Biomechatronics Group at MIT, the device was first provided to active military members who’d been wounded in combat, according to the Massachusetts-based company.

Constructed of aircraft aluminum, carbon fibers and other materials, the 5.1-pound device contains a microprocessor that senses where the patient is in his gait and a motor that adjusts the ankle angle and propulsion to normalized human locomotion, Kaluf said.

“It’s the only powered ankle-foot system that replicates the calf muscle,” Kaluf said. “The others act like a diving board effect, and absorb or rebound energy. But that’s not how our muscles work.”

Without proper ankle movement, ambulating, especially on uneven turf like a beach or the hilly terrain of the Upstate, is tough, he said. The BioM device makes that easier, he said.

And by walking more naturally, patients cannot only live a more normal life, they can avoid arthritis and other conditions in their remaining limbs, hips and back, he said.

On a computer tablet, Kaluf fine-tuned the ankle settings based on feedback from Jackson as he walked back and forth. And before long, he was walking with a natural gait.

“This actually feels like my normal ankle, the movement of it,” a beaming Jackson said. “Back to normal.”

Another feature of the new leg is a vacuum-assisted suspension that reduces friction between the socket and the limb, Kaluf said.

Jackson is one of the first patients in the Upstate to get the device, which costs $69,899 and is covered by a growing list of private insurers and state workers’ compensation programs, as well as the VA, according to BioM.

He was back to work last June, though in a different capacity, training new drivers and tackling other duties. He’s also been studying criminal justice with an eye on becoming a homicide detective. And in his spare time he’s been involved in volunteer activities, like working with a youth group at Rock of Ages Baptist Church.

Grateful for the opportunity the new technology has given him, he hopes to do even more with his new leg, including helping other amputees.

“It doesn’t matter if you lose a limb. You can still go on in life and achieve things,” he said. “I never thought I’d be able to drive again, or be able to do fun things with the family. Now I see that I can do the same things I used to do. Now, the sky’s the limit.”

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