Saturday, August 11, 2012

NEWS: Getting a (new) leg up

Originally posted on The Age on August 12, 2012
by Stathi Paxinos

Best foot forward: Cameron Ward with some of his prosthetics. Photo: Jacky Ghossein
WHEN a Mongolian swimmer walked into the Paralympics prosthetics repair centre in Beijing four years ago, Cameron Ward knew he had to help. The Australian prosthetist could hardly believe the state of the prosthetic that the man had been using as a right leg. It looked like a jumbled mess of scrap metal welded together with home-made joints that in Australia ''would be criminal to fit to someone''.

''It looked like his local villager had bashed something together out of metal rather than it being skilfully crafted out of all types of material like carbon fibre and silicons and things like that. It was really uncomfortable, a bit of metal sticking up into his stomach,'' Ward says.

So Ward went about working to replace the leg so that the swimmer could walk to his events at the Water Cube the next day.

Ward gets the thumbs up from a Mongolian swimmer at the Beijing Paralympics. Photo: Jacky Ghosseinein
''He was actually really scared when we told him that we would have to make him a new leg,'' Ward says. ''He was really worried because he couldn't afford it but we said, 'No, it's all covered by the service'. He was overjoyed when he heard that news.

''Whilst it was not the latest and greatest technology in prosthetics it certainly was compared to what he was on. We had to be mindful when we made him a new leg of where he was going back to. He was going back to Mongolia and wouldn't be in the position to be able to maintain the service of very high-tech stuff so we kept the leg we made for him relatively low tech so that the guys on the ground in Mongolia could still service it and he would get a good life out of that.

''But still the difference in technology between what he had and what he ended up on was phenomenal and you could tell how much it meant to him to be comfortable in the socket for the first time in probably a long time.''

Ward, who works as a senior prosthetist for Sydney company APC Prosthetics, which supplies the Australian Paralympic team, will again be working in the repair centre in London helping Australian competitors and those from around the world. It is a cause he is particularly passionate about, having moved to Sydney more than a decade ago so that he could work with Paralympic athletes.

Ward says the centre in Beijing completed about 2000 repairs, ''ranging from really quick jobs through to entire rebuilds''.

''It's almost like a triage centre where they work out the emergency level of whatever needs to be repaired, then that gets categorised and as soon as you finish a job you just walk out and fix another one,'' Ward says.

''That can be anything from fixing broken sprinting blades to rebuilding entire legs for people from Third World countries through to fixing wheelchairs and the whole array of the devices that the Paralympians need. Any of those things can go wrong and therefore need assisting, adjusting or repairing.''

Some sports, such as wheelchair rugby where collisions are part of the game, needed extra resources.

''The rugby guys obviously smash into each other left, right and centre and they actually have welders on site at the game to do it as they go,'' he says.

Ward said as a prosthetist responsible for repairing the athletes' competition and everyday prosthetics, he must take into account the environment to which the athlete would be returning.

''You've got to be very mindful with what you're making them,'' Ward says. ''The latest and greatest technology is not going to be the most suitable for them back in their [home] environment … there's no point putting a high-tech piece of equipment on that they're just not going to be able to maintain. They're not going to have the skills to be able to make those adjustments and the maintenance so that's something you definitely need to consider.''

Word List:
  • prosthetics: man-made parts of the body
  • jumbled: to mix things together in a confused or untidy way
  • bashed: to hit somebody/something very hard
  • phenomenal: very great or impressive
  • socket: part of the prosthesis (artificial limb) that fits around the remaining leg or arm
  • prosthetist: someone who makes, adjusts and repairs prosthetics
  • passionate: having or showing strong feelings of enthusiasm for something or belief in something
  • triage: the process of deciding how sick/injured/damaged a person/thing is, so that the most serious cases can be treated first
  • mindful: emembering somebody/something and considering them or it when you do something
  • suitable: right or appropriate for a particular purpose or occasion