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New prosthesis allows Utahn to 'keep up with the big boys'

Published: Wednesday, July 10 2013 4:29 p.m. MDT

Scott Allen, right, certified prosthetist at Fit-Well, prepares to suspend a new BiOM foot on Mike Parks in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, July 10, 2013.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — While lying in a hospital bed almost 40 years ago, Mike Parks decided that he would not let his trials get him down.

Parks estimates that he has been through 30 to 35 prosthetic legs since his amputation in 1977. Wednesday, he tested out the BiOM Ankle System.

Jogging back and forth on the sidewalk in front of Fit-Well Prosthetics and Orthotics Center, Parks beamed.

"I'm ready for boot camp," he said.

Minutes earlier, he sat inside the Fit-Well clinic waiting to test out the BiOM system, a prosthetic leg with motors and a belt that allows for more natural movement.

Fit-Well Prosthetics is the first clinic in Utah to carry the system. BiOM creates a powered plantarflexion system. In other words, a normal prosthetic leg relies on a spring, while the BiOM ankle system utilizes motors and a belt to propel the foot forward.

"In really simple terms, this is like taking off your ski boot," BiOm regional director Ryan Bretz said.

A silicone liner was previously rolled onto Parks' amputated limb. Certified prosthetist Scott Allen applied hand sanitizer to the five O-rings on the liner, near the bottom of the limb, in order to seal the rings to the socket. Parks slipped his leg into the socket of the BiOM, a process known as suspending, and the sound of compressing air added to the futuristic element of the invention as the leg moved into place.

Allen tugged on the leg — which can handle a pull of 250 pounds — to make sure that Parks was ready to go.

The ankle system mimics an actual leg and creates an ability for natural walking. After recording Parks' height, Bretz adjusted the stiffness in the leg using software in his Samsung Tablet, connected to the leg through Bluetooth technology. Parks walked back and forth inside the Fit-Well clinic while Bretz adjusted the "power" flowing into the leg.

"Let me know when you feel it," Bretz said.

Once Bretz properly programs normal, slow and fast cadences, Parks will be able to traverse any terrain.

To illustrate Parks' new flexibility, Allen had him hop up on a curb that was about 3 inches high. While the new prosthesis was switched on, he cleared the curb easily. After switching the motor off, Parks was unable to lift both legs over the curb with the hop.

The leg is designed to cut down on the energy that is expended while wearing normal prostheses, Allen said. When confronted with a hill, most wearing leg prostheses will walk down sideways or avoid it entirely. The BiOM system, which has technology that signals the knee to bend, changes that dynamic.

Parks strolled up and down grass hills, ramps and on the aforementioned jog up and down the sidewalk.

The ankle system could cost between $45,000 and $50,000, which Allen said is a small price to pay for quality of life improvement.

Because Parks is a veteran, his leg will be covered by Veterans Affairs.

BiOM received a $5 million grant from the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs Healthcare to develop the leg, Bretz said. It launched the BiOM commercially in January 2011 and now has around 1,000 clients. The company hope private insurers will cover the prosthesis, especially because it has the potential to reduce secondary complications such as arthritis or weight gain seen in many amputees.

Parks' active lifestyle made him an ideal candidate. He hunts and fishes when he is not volunteering for the Tooele Search and Rescue, the Tooele Arts Festival, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

"It feels good. It feels like my natural leg," he said.

The battery has a life of about 4,000 steps, and most patients will go through two batteries per day, depending on the terrain and patient's weight and lifestyle. BiOM also plans to develop solar panels for the batteries, increase the life and reduce the size of batteries.

Parks spent about a year and a half in the hospital after "being mangled up pretty bad," while on an aircraft carrier in the Navy. He went from 185 pounds to 97, at 5 feet 5 inches. He also lost his right leg below the knee.

Relearning to walk hurt, he said, but he considers his mid tibial amputation to be a "minor scratch" compared to losses others have experienced.

He admitted to having come in to the clinic with several broken prostheses in the past, something he anticipates will change with this new technology.

Bike riding will be one of his first activities with the new leg.

"I'll be able to keep up with the big boys," he said.

Email: wevans@deseretnews.com

Twitter: whitevs7

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