First Lt. John O’Brien flew his AV-8B Harrier over the two-lane highway near Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in North Carolina. Twice that day and hundreds of times before, O’Brien had accomplished the same training task: a rolling, vertical landing on a narrow strip of road.
The third time, though, O’Brien’s rate of descent was too high. He lost control of the jet as it slid off the road and into a cluster of pine trees. The fuel tank under the cockpit exploded, engulfing the aircraft in flames.
When O’Brien was pulled from the wreckage, third-degree burns covered 37 percent of the left side of his body. The leather-and-steel tip of his boot had melted onto his foot. Over the next 11 days, he would undergo intensive skin grafting and have amputations below his left knee and elbow.
It was September 1993; O’Brien was 28 years old.
After months of treatment, O’Brien was fitted for prosthetics at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland. They were, O’Brien says, “archaic”—heavy, bulky and uncomfortable. On the advice of fellow amputees, O’Brien found his way to a San Diego company that made prosthetics that were better-—or, at least, not terrible.
In 2008, a friend of O’Brien’s heard a radio show about athletes competing in the Paralympics, thanks to Tim Rayer and his company based in the Philadelphia area. “My buddy called me and said, ‘I think this guy can help you get back on your feet … literally,’” O’Brien says.
Rayer founded Prosthetic Innovations in 2006 with his brother, Michael, and their business partner, Christopher Dalmass. The Rayer brothers live in Lower Merion Township, and their Crum Lynne business works with amputees in 30 states and nine countries. Many are military veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The silver lining on the gray cloud of war is that there is a ton of research grant money going into prosthetics,” says Tim Rayer. “These soldiers are young, and, despite their amputations, they want to have active lifestyles. Our goal is to help them do just that.”
The engineers at Prosthetic Innova-tions use 3-D printing and other state-of-the-art technologies to perfect the socket devices that connect amputated limbs to prosthetics. “Better sockets make them more comfortable for amputees,” Rayer explains, “and they make the patients confident that the prosthetics will support them and function as they should.”
The Rayers and Dalmass also design activity-specific prosthetics. “We ask patients, ‘What do you want to do: run, mow the lawn, swim, play with your kids?’” Rayer says.
That flexibility was just what O’Brien was looking for. “Tim asked me what I wanted to do with my body,” O’Brien says. “I told him, ‘I want to run.’”
Seventeen years after his accident, O’Brien-—who retired from the Marine Corps as a captain—has a walking leg for everyday use, one for swimming, and a blade for running. He ran the Marine Corps Marathon in 2010, posting a time of 4:54:50. In 2011, he ran the marathon again in 4:21:30, raising $10,400 for the Marine Corps’ Toys for Tots program.
Prosthetic Innovations also makes robotic ankles and hands, plus activity-specific feet with different heels. All are crafted from carbon composite, Kevlar, titanium and thermoplastics, which make them strong but lightweight.
In 2013, former West Chester Univer-sity football player Brian McDermott was hit by a car and his left leg amputated below the knee. He now has a high-functioning prosthetic. “People do look at my leg, but not with disgust, because it doesn’t look disgusting,” he says. “There’s a sporty look to it.”
O’Brien says such acceptance is now societal in scope. “There are so many military vets with these high-tech prosthetics that I think people are getting used to seeing us with them,” he says. “People still stop and ask me about them, but now it’s with interest and respect, not pity.”
That’s the same response that greeted Amy Purdy, the double-leg amputee who performed on Dancing With the Stars. Using several types of prosthetic legs, she took second place in the competition. “She was a great example of what amputees can do,” O’Brien says. “Maybe I should start dancing.”
Recent amputation statistics.
Sources: Congressional Research Service and the Amputee Coalition
51,809 – U.S. service members wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq (2001-14)
1,558 – U.S. service members with major limb amputations from battle injuries (2001-13)
185,000 – Average number of amputations in the U.S. annually
2 million – Number of people living with limb loss in the U.S.
54% – Percentage of amputations caused by vascular disease, including diabetes
45% – Percentage of amputations caused by trauma