High Tech Feet On the Go
She is smooth as silk as she glides down the runway in the latest high-fashion swimwear. She skis, plays tennis and golf. Two years ago model Ivy Gunter was inducted into the prestigious International Models Hall of Fame.
But Ivy's story takes a twist when you learn that she lost one leg from a malignancy in 1980. For some models, this might have meant an end to modeling and sporting careers. But not for Ivy, who purchased a wig to conceal her chemotherapy-caused hair loss and met with John Sabolich of Oklahoma City. There, Ivy was fitted with a prosthetic leg and an amazing new energy-storing foot that permits amputees like Ivy to remain on the go-even to walk down a runway as the eye-catching center of attention.
Ivy explains that when she lost her leg, she lost her self-image as a woman, but after being fitted with the new leg and foot she was able to regain her normal walking gait.
"The most important thing to me was regaining my femininity," the model says. "After being fitted with the leg and foot my sexual image was restored."
With the prosthesis, Ivy has been able to return to a sport she enjoys - tennis.
"Even though I sometimes miss a ball," she says, "I now have the flexibility to move around the court. And besides, I missed balls before I lost my leg."
Close to Natural
Until recently, people with a prosthetic limb were lucky if they simply could walk. Now, they not only walk, but play basketball, tennis, ski and participate in a variety of favorite sports.
Researcher John Sabolich, CPO, of Oklahoma City, performs final testing on the Sabolich Foot (pat. pending), the first total energy storing foot to mimic the human arch.
Ask Roger Charter, a double amputee from Fremont, Nebraska. Roger received new legs with special sockets and the first Sabolich Foot (patent pending) in 1988. With these new devices, Charter has demonstrated for the first time that bilateral amputees can run step-over-step. "It's as close to having my natural feet back as anything I can imagine," he maintains.
The special foot is the brainchild of John Sabolich, president of Sabolich Prosthetics and Research. John, a second generation researcher, took over the business that was begun by his father in 1946. And he has zapped the prosthetic world with his own research.
Leonardo da Vinci called them "a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art." Fifty-two bones, 33 joints and more than 100 ligaments, tendons and muscles make up the feet, with the bones in the feet comprising about one-quarter of the body's 204 bones. The heel, the base of the little toe, and the base of the big toe form a weight-bearing tripod with toes added for balance.
A step in slow motion begins at the heel, moves to the outside of the foot, then shifts to the base of the big toe. As you move, the whole network of muscle, bones and connective tissue - from the toe to the calf of the leg - assists in the act.
Sabolich borrowed from biology when designing the Sabolich Foot, the first prosthetic to imitate the natural structure of the foot. Mimicking the arch design, the foot functions like the bones and tendons of the human foot. The human arch copy provides a natural walking gait to those who have lost a foot or feet.
A major benefit of the human arch design is vertical shock absorption. The foot builds up, stores, transfers and releases energy, so that the person walking or running can expend less effort. Both forward and backward thrust are provided throughout the person's gait cycle - heel strike, mid-stance strike and toe-off. A cushion effect springs the amputee up and forward with every step.
Each foot is custom-made for the individual's weight, height, gait cycle, activity level and other factors. A full cosmetic covering includes vein lines, toe nails and toe prints. Fitting takes two to three days. For the next few months, until final patent approval, the prosthesis may be available free of charge to qualified persons as determined by research and development needs. Once final refinements have been made, the cost of the Sabolich Foot will be about $300-$400.
Sabolich, who graduated from New York University with a bachelor of science degree in prosthetics, has produced several innovations for amputees:
- A CAT-CAM leg for above-the-knee amputees, with a leg and socket made of ultra light titanium carbon fiber and flexible aerospace plastics.
- The Oklahoma running leg, a knee and leg running system which is designed of aerospace materials cable which snaps an artificial knee back in place after each running step.
- A myoelectric arm and hand.
- The CustomFlex Socket™, a highly contoured bone and muscle socket.
Laura McClure of Waverly, Tennessee, lost a leg to cancer four years ago but was determined not to let her handicap interfere with her love of sports. Last year, at age 17, she ran track with her energy-storing foot in the Para-Olympics at Seoul, South Korea. She credits the foot with taking seconds off her time.
With this high-tech foot, amputees like Ivy, Roger and Laura are on the go once again. But Sabolich is not at rest, either, and continues to borrow ideas from biology in researching new and better devices.
"When you see the look of a child who's never been able to walk before, or the man or woman who's forgotten what it's like to walk easily and comfortably," he says, "all the hard work and research is worthwhile."
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Read more of Ivy Gunter's story in the Sept/Oct 1999 issue of Coping® with Cancer.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 1989.