Prosthetics: When high-tech isn't always the best option


Sounds like John Henry all over again. No Myoelectric device will ever replace a man!

But that’s no fun at all for the engineers!

My brother John was born with cerebral palsy and we’ve made adaptive stuff for him for years. He’s got some very high tech solutions in his toolkit, but when it comes down to it, yeah - you want something that works all day every day.

It’s also important to note that there’s NO solution you can just hand somebody. Everything he uses has countless modifications, repairs, tweaks. Where the tech vendors see a solution, we see the beginning of a process.

On the other hand - it’s a process that’s often fun as hell!


High-tech is often a poor option when the high-tech hardware is immature. Eventually, they’ll make these arms ingress/environmentally hermetic, but they’re still in the prototype phase. I’m really not surprised this is a chief complaint. There are a lot of low tech reasons people don’t like these fancy manipulators that are probably not high priorities on the developers’ list.

Sounds like this is at least partly an engineering problem rather than a “high-tech is bad” problem. If you make a $100,000 prosthetic arm and you forget to waterproof the damn thing, you need to get your ass back to the drawing board.

My Dad’s been an amputee for 50 of his 69 years, and he’s had an incredible array of interesting limbs over that time.
From the early socket-and-hammer thing I remember him keeping under his bed as a spare, to the disturbing faux-realistic flesh-coloured foam & stocking things they gave him in the late Eighties and early Nineties, to the swish modern carbon fibre and aluminium jobbies he sports today.
He’s done his damnedest to not let them rule his life either, although he’s having some problems at the moment as he’s got a new limb-fitter who’s taking a while to get used to how Dad treats his legs.
And he treats them HARD.

Let’s start with cars.
The earliest car I can remember Dad owning was a Land Rover that had been specially modified to help him drive it. Then Dad wised up to the joy of big American automatics. It was quite something growing up in rural England driving around in a Plymouth Duster.
We weren’t fantastically well off, so Dad performed all the car maintenance he could himself. His prosthetic never stopped him from getting under a car.
As automatics became more widely available in the UK, Dad’s cars became cheaper to run and maintain, but unfortunately a lot blander too. But when he moved to Maine for 18 months in the early Nineties (where he took up skiing), he bought a wonderful black Ford Bronco with red leather interiors.
I think that one was his favourite car ever.

Then there’s the fact that Dad just can’t sit still.
We would regularly go on incredibly active holidays when I was younger, with one of the most memorable being when I was 11.
Dad & I went to Italy and backpacked from Naples to Venice over the course of two weeks. We carried our homes on our backs, both using good old frame-packs. One particularly memorable morning, we woke up on a campsite and Dad realised he didn’t have enough money to pay for our one-night stay, so we climbed a seven foot concrete wall and scarpered!

On one of our holidays in the States (the one where we drove from Miami through to Mexico and back in 4 weeks), Dad & I discovered the joys of sailing catamarans. When we got back to the UK, Dad searched like crazy and was eventually able to get a hold of a 14-foot cat that we proceeded to sail in any conditions, Dad on the helm and me hanging over the hull via trapeze as his crew.

I eventually got Dad to cave and get me a sailboard. I’d seen the videos of those crazy guys jumping waves and I wanted to be them.
Dad even gave that a shot, but while he could tack, gybing was impossible for him, so he had to knock that one on the head.

When I went on to discover booze and girls and lost my interest in sailing (something I regret to this day), Dad went on to ever greater achievements, and ended up regularly competing in the Dart Nationals. He won LOTS of races and became president of the local sailing club. On the Severn. The second-fastest tide in the world. Sailing there is dangerous at the best of times. You never know what the Severn is holding in store for you.
I reckon the fact that he didn’t need his tin leg when sailing meant his boat wasn’t carrying as much weight as the others and therefore had a speed advantage!

Delicate legs don’t work for my Dad.
When it comes down to it, he needs something solid that’ll suck up to his stump, comfortably, work with his gait and ultimately not break.
I often wonder how much the NHS has learned from the many wreckages of my Dad’s legs.
I hope it’s a lot.

Oh, and for Christmas in our household, we don’t get Stockings. We get stump socks :smile:


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