As a child, Christina Stephens filled her parents’ basement with Lego castles and pirate ships. When she put her Lego-building skills to work last month making a prosthetic leg out of the children’s toy, she became an Internet sensation.
Stephens, 31, lost her left foot in an accident this winter and decided to combine her clinical expertise as an occupational therapist with her own experience of losing a limb to help others dealing with amputations. Stephens began a series of YouTube videos and a Facebook page under the name “AmputeeOT,” in which she addresses issues that many new amputees struggle with. Among them are how to swim with and without a prosthetic, deal with phantom limb pain, and clean an amputation site and prosthetic liner.
But it was her construction of a prosthetic leg out of hundreds of Lego pieces that made her an Internet star. The YouTube video has more than 1.3 million views since it was posted in early July. Stephens plans more videos, and she has a second Lego leg — “Lego Leg 2.0,” she called it. This one has moveable pieces — but it’s still for show only.
“Part of what I want to do with my videos is de-stigmatize amputation and make it less scary,” Stephens said.
A 2009 Cambodian beauty pageant for disabled women was full of land mines from start to finish. Testing taboos, a Norwegian theater director wanted to draw attention to survivors in a war zone. Twenty women scarred by decades of war were to parade their amputated bodies for the chance at a new prosthetic limb. The organizer had the support of the government’s mine action agency.
Days before the debut of a photo exhibit, a lead-up to the live pageant, there was much indignation and all support collapsed. The cancelled pageant provoked controversy even in its aftermath.
Sophie de Oliveira Barata works out of a bright white, semi-disheveled northwest London studio surrounded by feet and fingers, legs leaning against walls and hands that look real enough to shake. With a background in art and special-effects makeup, she worked for eight years for a prosthetics manufacturer before deciding to become a creator of bespoke limbs. “It meant I could use my creative skills and do something massively rewarding,” she said, dropping an oddly appealing man’s foot in my lap. “Making an alternative limb is like entering a child’s imagination and playing with their alter ego,” she said. “You’re trying to find the essence of the person.”
In 2011, Sophie de Oliveira Barata started the Alternative Limb Project and soon found interested clients. She created one leg with a stereo embedded in it, another with removable muscles and a third, among others, that housed minidrawers. Recently she began collaborating with artists skilled in animatronics, 3-D printing, metalwork and carbon fiber.
“After losing a limb, a person isn’t the same,” de Oliveira Barata said. “So this is a form of expression, an empowerment, a celebration. It’s their choice of how to complete their body — whether that means having a realistic match or something from an unexplored imagination.”
Photo: Ryan Seary – formerly an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician, US military
Toronto’s Sunnybrook Centre for Independent Living (SCIL) has a 25-member team of prosthetists, technicians and other experts. SCIL helps complex trauma patients regain independence and mobility with customized prostheses and individualized rehabilitation.
Prostheses are made in the on-site lab. The first step in creating a new limb is to make a socket in the stump or residuum. The artificial body part attaches inside the socket. The prosthetist takes detailed measurements of the residuum and then creates a cast of it – similar to that for a broken limb. When that cast dries, plaster is poured into it to make a form of the limb. The form is then carefully smoothed down and filed until it becomes an exact replica of the residuum. The amputee is fitted with a test socket and a limb and learns to walk with this set before the definitive socket and limb are finalized.
Technician Paul Russell says there is “a bit of an artistic feel and flow,” as some amputees need their sockets to be very strong and others want them to be light. “You’re trying to walk the line between something that’s strong enough and something that is not too heavy.”
Patients often develop a strong, lifelong bond with their prosthetist. The more the experts get to know the amputees, the better they are able to create sockets that work for their lifestyle. Getting the artificial limb for the first time can be a life-changing experience.
Dr. Jacquelin Perry was a physician and researcher who shed light on the complexities of walking. She was a leader in treating polio victims in the 1950s and again in the ’80s when the symptoms of some returned, Dr. Perry died at age 94 on March 11, 2013 in Downey, California. Her death was announced by the Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center, where she worked for more than 60 years.
Dr. Perry earned wide attention for her work in analyzing the human gait, which she broke down into eight motion patterns governed by 28 major muscles in each leg. Her 1992 book, “Gait Analysis: Normal and Pathological Function,” became a standard text for orthopedists, physical therapists and other rehabilitation professionals.
Her clinical observations and descriptions of “loading response” were clear and had implications for many biomechanists. To break walking, running, stair-climbing and other human ambulations into discrete components, illustrated with precise photographs, Dr. Perry used ultrasound studies, motion analysis and electromyography, which traces the nerve pathways through muscle using electric charges.
Dr. Perry was an active surgeon until a brain artery blockage forced her to stop operating. She then devoted much of her time to studying the biomechanics of walking. As part of her research, she investigated how muscles and joints behave when spinal-cord injury patients propel themselves in wheelchairs, and how below-the-knee amputees are able to walk with prosthetic feet.