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Bionic limbs give new lease on life to amputees

Staff Writer

When Greg DeWolf had his right leg amputated below the knee a decade ago, his life changed forever.

But this June, DeWolf got a special computerized prosthetic foot and ankle that adjust to any surface he walks on and any angle he keeps his foot at. The bionic prosthetic was designed and fitted by Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics, a nationwide corporation with headquarters in Maryland and a local office on Brunswick Road in Grass Valley.

“This is the best thing that has happened to me,” DeWolf, 50, said. “It’s like getting a normal foot. It’s truly a blessing.”

Larry Creamer, 50, who also recently got his bionic foot and ankle, called his prosthetic “the closest thing you can get to your own ankle.”

“It adjusts to the softness and firmness” of the surface you walk on, he said.

Apparently, the prosthetic leg looks like any other of its kind, except that it has a silver-colored, matte-finish ankle. The computer microprocessor is located at the ankle, experts said.

“The old-school prosthetics were dependent on walking on a flat terrain,” said Dean Barrett, manager, prosthetist and orthotist at the Grass Valley Hanger. “If one didn’t walk on a flat terrain, it could cause pain, wear and tear on the prosthetic limb as well as on the sound limb.”

But the new bionic prosthetic “has censors which detect movement – how fast you are moving, how much load you are putting on the foot or ankle – no matter what kind of surface you’re standing on,” Barrett said.

An equally new innovation is a bionic prosthetic arm which has a hand with fingers that move like normal fingers.

“The hand works off of muscle stimulation,” Barrett said. “There are electrodes that the skin touches inside the socket – the device that the limb fits into. The socket picks up electrical signals off the muscles. The signals are then amplified and that in turn operates the electrical motors for each finger.”

So far, Hanger has provided two foot-and-ankle prosthetics and one above-the-knee mechanism for clients, Barrett said.

A bionic foot and ankle together costs about $28,000, while a bionic knee could cost around $29,000, Barrett added.

Most private insurance companies don’t cover costs for bionic limbs except for the microprocessor knee. DeWolf and Creamer got their prosthetics paid for by worker’s compensation because their injuries were work-related.

“If I went to a hospital and talked to people getting an amputation, I’d tell them to fight for a bionic limb,” DeWolf said. “I used to pray to get back my leg. This is the closest to getting my leg back. It’s an answer to my prayers.”

To contact Soumitro Sen, e-mail ssen@theunion.com or call 477-4229.

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