San Francisco VA Health Care System
From Skateboarder to Bionic Man: New Ankle Helps Active Vet
Bill Perkins was a long-time daring skateboarder, riding handrails and boasting 26 broken bones from various acrobatic skateboarding mishaps, before joining the Marines as a teen.
Fast forward to age 19. It’s November 25, 2009. Marine Lance Corporal Hubert William “Bill” Perkins, Jr., is out patrolling the Bakwa District of Afghanistan in an armored, mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle which suddenly runs over an improvised explosive device. Six Marines are injured when the bomb explodes. Bill’s left leg is shattered, leaving both legs with multiple broken bones. He arrives at Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland for treatment. Doctors don’t know if they’ll need to amputate his left leg.
They do. Bill receives a standard, high-tech prosthetic leg and therapy. After four years and one month serving in the US Marines, he is medically retired.
Fast forward to age 23. Bill calls the Prosthetics department at the San Francisco VA Medical Center (SFVAMC). Born and raised in Santa Rosa, Bill likes the active life: climbing cliffs to go fishing; hiking with his wife, Cassie; pushing the limits of the great outdoors. He could really use a prosthetic that better accommodates his active lifestyle.
“I was looking for an all-terrain ankle,” said Perkins. Wearing his usual prosthetic leg often leads to an aching back and hip, muscle cramping, unbalance, and becoming fatigued after walking.
Fast forward to November 2012. We’re in a large patient room with Perkins; his wife Cassie; Charles McIntyre and Chris Herman, Certified Prosthetists/Orthotists at SFVAMC; and Shane Namack, VP/sales of a company which proffers the BiOM device.
“Bill was looking for something that can be used off-road,” said McIntyre. As it turns out, there is a new product called BiOM that is now available, and SFVAMC is the first VA in Northern California to offer it. “I wanted Bill to try this technology to see if he’d like it,” said McIntyre. “I didn’t know if he would accept the weight of it, and we had only one other person here who had tried it, so I thought—give him the opportunity to go on it. As soon as he tried it, it was perfect.“
“The BiOM bionic lower leg system has reflexive powered plantar flexion to simulate true action of the human ankle, the Achilles tendon, and calf muscles by propelling the amputee upwards and forwards during each walking step,” said Namack. Per BiOM literature it returns 100 percent of the energy usually expended by a biological leg, while accommodating terrain changes—which provides much better balance. This breakthrough in robotics technology uses a combination of processors, sensors, motors, and springs which provide the user with powered push-off and increased range of motion with each step. In other words, this prosthetic ankle enables amputees to walk naturally and effortlessly.
“We have six neuro processors inside of this (BiOM) ankle,” said Namack. “What we wanted was to build an ankle that would do the thinking for the individual. You don’t have to think about speeding up or slowing down. The BiOM is truly reflexive, so for example, if a patient steps into a hole it will lift him out of the hole. It almost feels like it’s a step ahead…it’s pretty amazing.”
“I think it’s super exciting,” said Perkins’ wife, Cassie. “It’s frustrating when Bill can’t do things, or when he’s hurting. We would go on long walks, and after a certain point his leg would start to bother him. It’s hard to watch him struggle with that, so this is really great. Plus I get nervous when he goes to rocky, cliffy areas to go fishing.”
And what might Perkins try now that he has the perfect new leg and ankle? "I might walk the dog,” he says tentatively, looking at Cassie. (Laughter) “I said…might!”
Enrolled Veterans who are amputees and would like additional information about BiOM may call SFVAMC Prosthetics at (415) 221-4810, ext. 4423.