No, I’m not at all ashamed to admit that one of my favourite TV series as a boy was the Six Million Dollar Man. For those of you have no idea what I’m talking about, the series followed the exploits of an astronaut who lost an eye, arm and both legs in an accident. All were replaced by “bionic” implants and limbs, making him “better than he was before”. Total rubbish right?
Well recently I met someone in one of my most uplifting encounters of 2014. His name was “Biscuit” and he was a part of the “Help for Heroes” team that recently visited the BVI from the UK. Biscuit lost one of his lower legs as a soldier in the Middle East conflict, and now has a steel prosthetic. We were having a beer together and we got chatting about it, something he was very happy to do.
He tells numerous funny stories about people’s reactions to his leg, typically adults are embarrassed, children less so. Recently a little boy ran up to him in a park yelling “What happened to your leg?”! The boy’s mother was mortified, but Biscuit, quick as a flash answered “it fell off because I didn’t eat my greens”! Exit one suitably chastened child and a big thumbs up from Mum!
I don’t know very much about the subject, but since the Six Million Dollar Man I have kept up a passing interest in the technology of prosthetics, not least because of its growing necessity following the horrors of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Necessity is the mother of invention, and the field of prosthetics has once again proved that tenet.
I mentioned to Biscuit my understanding that one of the biggest problems is the human – prosthetic interface, which can cause severe discomfort and blistering on the human part of the limb. He confirmed this, but advised his leg has a carbon fibre lining to counter the problem, which needs to be replaced every couple of months. Carbon fibre! This used to be something from the Space Age, now it’s common place and improving the well-being of people like Biscuit. I mentioned that I had seen a recent TED documentary on this subject, but which also went a lot further.
The TED documentary (you can watch it here) was presented by Hugh Herr, who lost his own legs in a mountain climbing accident. He is now a world-leader in the field of bionics, and some of his insights were fascinating, including:
- Addressing the interface blistering issue. He has developed a material which, coupled with electronic actuators with purpose-built software, varies its softness or hardness depending on the specific area of the limb it is touching, and also depending on the instantaneous demand being placed on the area at any given time. This has eliminated blisters.
- Recognising that we don’t need to “replace” the lost limb. As a mountain climber (yes he has continued to do it) he now has several different legs, which he can interchange depending on the conditions – rock, shale, ice, snow etc. They can also be different lengths!
- Addressing the flexibility requirements of limbs. Human arm and leg sockets are incredibly complex, yet he is developing artificial sockets to address this. He brought on stage a ballroom dancer who lost her leg in the Boston marathon bombing. She demonstrated an ability to dance once again, thanks to his bionic leg development for her.
In many respects these bionics have actually improved the individual’s abilities in certain endeavours – e.g. Hugh Herr’s mountain climbing.
I never dreamed as a boy that the Six Million Dollar Man would become reality, certainly not in my lifetime. Yet here we are – “Better than he was before”. Boy have we travelled a long way from Long John Silver in Treasure Island.
PS If you liked the Six Million Dollar Man, follow this link for some childhood nostalgia!