2015-07-09 / Front Page

Limb Lab Offers Hope for Newporter

By Olga Enger

Firefighter Braden Leonard enjoys some outdoor time with friends while on a trip to Minnesota for a prosthetic. Firefighter Braden Leonard enjoys some outdoor time with friends while on a trip to Minnesota for a prosthetic. Newport resident Braden Leonard has spent a year looking for something he never thought he would lose — a hand. Last June, in a story which gained attention from national media, the 33-year-old firefighter contracted a flesh eating bacteria called necrotizing fasciitis after he fell on a thorn in Newport’s Ballard Park.

“I thought I was going into the emergency room to get some antibiotics, but I woke up without a hand,” Leonard recalled. Even with the amputation, doctors gave their patient only a 20 percent chance of survival.

There are over 850 cases of necrotizing fasciitis reported annually in the country, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Although the flesh–eating disease has recently been making headlines, the center’s tracking does not indicate a rise in annual infections.

Standing at 6’1” with a muscular frame, Leonard used to spend his free time on spontaneous snowboarding trips out West, climbing rocks, mountain biking, and sailing. Today, most of his energy is occupied with researching prosthetics, in hopes he will be able to return to work.

“This is 2015. With the wars and technology, I thought there would be so much more available,” said the firefighter.

Prosthetics connect to amputated limbs with a socket. Additional tools such as a hook, called terminal devices, connect to the socket. As materials such as carbon fiber become available, modern sockets have become lighter and more durable, but the overall design has remained largely unchanged.

Many upper limb amputees elect not to use any kind of prosthetic due to discomfort, according to a long-term survey conducted by the International Society of Prosthetics and Orthotics. Leonard had a similar experience after he took home his first prosthetic.

“It was painful and cumbersome,” said Leonard. “I never really used it.”

To compound his problem, Leonard suffered from phantom limb pains, which doctors believed were caused by a neuroma, or a growth of nerve tissue at the end of his arm.

“I’ve felt every injury I’ve ever had, from a broken hand, cut fingers, or sometimes the back of my hand just itches, but I can’t scratch it,” explained Leonard. “It’s like my brain is cycling through all the tactical memories, trying to figure it out.” The phantom pain was often triggered when he bumped the limb, so doctors buried the nerves behind his muscle during a surgery last month.

As an upper limb amputee in New England, Leonard is in a minority.

“Ninety percent of the people I deal with are lower limb amputations,” said Matthew Carlow, a prosthetist at New England Orthotics and Prosthetics Systems in Cranston. “In the Midwest, with farming equipment and industrial plants, they see more [upper limb amputees]. Here on the East Coast, it is much more uncommon and there is less expertise.”

The prosthetist added that upper limbs are more complicated than legs. “As far as lower extremities go, you just get someone up and walking. With upper arms, there is more dexterity and range of motion. People need to grab and hold things. There is just a lot more involved.”

Carlow recently made headlines when a client became the first woman in the country to use a state-of-the-art robotic hand called the Michelangelo. The myoelectric system, which means it is operated by motor, provides more grip patterns and control than robotic hands of the past.

Despite the advances, the system is not suited for the work of a firefighter, said Carlow.

“Anyone who would be disruptive with the equipment, such as someone who works in manual labor, would be better suited for a body–powered device such as a hook,” explained the expert. Body-powered prosthetics use cables and harnesses to mechanically maneuver the artificial limb through shoulder and arm movement.

Eager to find a solution, Leonard recently traveled to Rochester, Minn. to visit Limb Lab, a prosthetics company recommended by his surgeon. There, he learned about EMS socket designs, which use a vacuum technology to increase the surface layer of a flexible inner socket, creating a snug and friction free fit, says the company.

Limb Lab cast Leonard for what will be the first EMS upper limb socket in the country. The untested approach has risks, but Leonard is eager to make progress toward his goal.

“I’d like to go back to work in full capacity,” said Leonard. If successful, he would be the only upper arm amputee professional firefighter in the country.

Although Leonard’s options are limited, Carlow said amputees coming back from war have influenced advances in technology.

“Something is coming out every year. There is some cutting-edge stuff. Five years from now, there will be many more products that we don’t have today,” Carlow predicted.

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