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Big Strides in High-Tech Limbs for War Amputees

In peacetime, Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio sees a few amputees each year. But since the war in Iraq began, all of the military hospitals have begun treating greater numbers of young people who've lost limbs. At BAMC, as the huge hospital is known, the Army has created a new team to care for these wartime amputees with different approaches and new technology.

Sports medicine is the model for the program at BAMC. Doctors get their patients out of the bed and into the gym -- often while they're still grieving for lost limbs, still recovering from other wounds. The idea is to get patients to use whatever is left of their amputated limbs. If it's a leg, they make them stand up.

BAMC's amputee center takes a holistic approach to treatment and recovery, bringing together doctors who treat patients' wounds, orthopedic specialists, prosthetists, psychiatrists and counselors. It also adds the latest high-tech advances to the mix.

Prosthetist John Fergason uses technology to give amputees prostheses that allow them to regain their formerly active lifestyles. Among his arsenal of tools is the C-Leg, a prosthetic leg with a microprocessor that uses information from various sensors to adjust the wearer's gait, allowing for more complex, subtle movements.

BAMC is also building a gait lab, a room with panels on the floor to measure weight and pressure, and computers and cameras to record movement. The information will help Fergason make even more complex adjustments to the new legs.

Dr. Robert Granville, who heads BAMC's amputee center, says it may be possible soon to bolt prostheses right to the bone, the way knee replacements are now done. Researchers are also working on artificial hands that sense pressure and heat.

Granville says the center's high success rate stems in part from its young, highly motivated patients, who were athletic before their injuries and have been trained to set goals. He says the Army provides the latest and best equipment so that soldiers and their doctors can break new ground on what is possible for amputees.

NPR's Steve Lickteig produced this report.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's senior national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer travels the country and the globe for NPR News, bringing her unique insights and wealth of experience to bear on the day's top news stories.
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