This past weekend, amputee Zak Vawter stood at the foot of Chicago’s Willis Tower with the intention of scaling its 103 flights. The purpose of this historic climb was simple, to test out a new bionic leg which may very be the way of the future. Unlike previous prosthetics, this limb is actually controlled by the user’s mind. Thanks to Vawter’s determination, and a little help from the bionic limb, the climb went off without a hitch!
Vawter, who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident in 2009, performed this climb as part of SkyRise Chicago, an indoor stair-climbing fund-raising event for the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC), along with roughly 2700 other climbers. For years now, he has been commuting from Seattle – where he lives with his wife and two children – to Chicago to assist the RIC with the development of the leg.
This consisted of a surgical procedure called “targeted muscle reinnervation”, originally pioneered by the RIC’s Center for Bionic Medicine for upper-arm amputees. The operation reassigns nerves that once controlled a lost limb, allowing amputees to have more natural control of prosthetic devices. In Vawter’s case, this meant rerouting the residual nerves that normally would carry signals to his lower leg by attaching them to his hamstring.
Once that was complete, Vawter was assigned the leg that would turn these nerve impulses into full-range movement. Consisting of a powered knee and ankle that work in unison, the device reads the wearer’s intent. When they push on the device to stand up, for example, it pushes back, propelling them up. When they pull on the device, it retracts, allowing them to take a step forward or vertically, depending on the signals it receives.
“Everything went great,” said Vawter at the event’s end. “The prosthetic leg did its part, and I did my part.” Kudos to you Zak Vawter! Who knows? This could be the end of problems involving accessibility as we know it!