[Web Special] Femi Oke Visits a VA Prosthetics Lab

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Mark Moffa shaves a cast in the Prosthetics lab of the VA Medical Center in New York.

Mark Moffa is lovingly caressing the leg of a Vietnam vet. His fingers linger on a little imperfection, so he gently shaves it smooth. It’s okay; you haven’t accidentally stumbled upon an R rated war blog!  Mark makes and fits prosthetic limbs, and the leg he is tenderly touching is made out of plaster of Paris. (...click through to continue reading and hear our interview with Department Chief John Loosen)

[Hear John Loosen, prosthetics department chief at the Manhattan VA]

This is all part of a day's work for the team at the Prosthetics Department of the VA Medical Center in Manhattan, New York. I spent a few hours with the chief of the prosthetics department, John Loosen, to get a glimpse into the cutting edge technology being used to make artificial limbs for vets. John is an amputee himself. He remembers the exact day he was wounded in Vietnam: December 29th, 1967. He’s made a career out of making sure vets who have lost limbs get the very best prostheses available.

Scattered around the laboratory are prosthetic leg and foot parts. A large leg with a noisy kneecap leans against a desk. A machine carves out a foam thigh from a three dimensional image. There are nuts and bolts and plastic parts mixed in with power legs and feet. The power leg contains a micro-chip that can sense a change in the terrain as you walk. It can even adjust its height to accommodate high heels. When John tells me about a "covert" arm that is in secret development, I feel like I have truly stumbled into a James Bond world of high tech gadgetry.

A regular old-style manual prosthetic leg costs the VA hospital around $1,500. Prosthetic fitter Ken Brever tells me that in the “outside world” it could be three times as much. Once you start getting into robotic limbs the price shoots up. John is wearing a “C-leg,” a robotic prosthetic leg with a microprocessor that allows more release at the knee, mimicking the movement of a real leg. His left prosthetic leg is worth about $90,000, but at the VA hospital money isn’t an issue. If a patient wants a leg for running, or a waterproof leg to wear in the shower, the lab will order the parts, make the legs and custom fit them. There’s no insurance company to negotiate with, no red tape, and the lab is happy to experiment and try out different options. You could call this veteran health care funded by a public option, because the tax payer picks up the tab.

Walter Reed Army Medical Center told me that to date there are 937 Afghanistan and Iraq amputees patients treated in Department of Defense facilities. The Pentagon is catering to this new group of amputees by putting 100 million dollars into a project called “Revolutionizing Prosthetics”. The research funding is aimed at developing better, smarter prosthetic limbs, and million dollar grants are going to education facilities, private companies, as well as VA hospitals. The developments will benefit anybody who needs to use a prosthetic limb in the future -- not just veterans.   

I left the VA Medical Center in Manhattan with a light dusting of plaster of Paris (thanks Mark!) and a deeper understanding of prosthetics. I can’t quite tell you how multiple sensors anticipate the next move a robotic leg is going to make, but thanks to John Loosen and his team, I now understand that no prosthetic limb is too expensive, too high tech, or too much trouble to make for service people who lose a limb serving their country.