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The future of prosthetics
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Forget wooden legs. The London Prosthetic Centre is transforming lives with its fabulous creations. Fiona Adams learns more
Remember Steve Austin – he of 70s TV series The Six Million Dollar Man? Well, for those who don’t (or can’t), he was the bionic man – an astronaut rebuilt with ‘bionic’ implants in his legs, arm and eye, giving strength, speed and vision beyond the norm.
Unlike real people who need to be rebuilt, Steve’s new legs looked much like his old ones and came through any number of high-octane pursuits. Ironically, in the real 1970s prosthetic limbs were still made of wood and metal, and the odds on doing anything more exciting than walking in a straight line were remote.
One person who knows this better than most is Richmond resident Georgy Evans, who lost her leg below the knee as a result of an accident on an escalator in 1968. Georgy, one of 60,000 amputees in the UK today, was just three.
“Back then,” she recalls, “I had a metal leg with a sculpted wooden foot – no toes – and woollen socks. My grandfather lost an arm on the Somme in 1917 and his prosthesis was exactly the same: metal, wood and wool. Nothing had advanced in all that time.”
Growing up Georgy rarely did sport, but today she is able to run, ride, scuba dive and ski. She can wear high heels, trek through rivers and walk as far as the whim takes her. It’s a transformation partly down to personal resolve, but also to the awe-inspiring work of Abdo Haidar, who founded the London Prosthetic Centre in Kingston five years ago.
Abdo, who had worked with both NHS and private patients, wanted to open his own centre to “give people what I wanted as regards quality, time and undivided attention without budget restrictions.” He soon gained an international reputation.
Around 50% of Abdo’s 550 patients travel from abroad, notably from the Middle East and Africa. Some have lost limbs as the result of conflict, but most have been injured in accidents. Like Georgy, their initial needs are very simple.
“All amputees are first of all looking for an everyday walking leg,” he explains. “Once they’re happy with that, they start thinking about their hobbies and interests. We can make high-heel legs, low-heel legs. We make skiing legs (most famously for paralympic athlete Heather Mills), diving legs, running legs, rowing legs… each sport needs a different kind of leg.”
Georgy was first able to try running when she was an NHS patient of Abdo’s in the late 1990s and he urged her to apply for a revolutionary carbon-fibre prosthesis. She joined a gym, learned to scuba dive and “was able to do things that had never occurred to me before. It was such a change from growing up.”
Later, when she wanted to horse ride and ski, Abdo was again the man to help her.
“He said that he thought he’d be able to make one leg to do both. The ankle moves and it is also exposed, so I can use an Allen key to adjust it if I need to. It also has a different kind of silicone socket, which is more comfortable.
“Abdo really thought about my problems, and about what I would need in order to be able to do what I wanted. It has been absolutely liberating.”
The London Prosthetic Centre not only assesses patients’ needs, but the technicians make and assemble virtually all the components – whether for arms, legs or hands – on site. A quick scout of the website reveals an impressive array of technologies and products that would not have looked amiss on Steve Austin.
“We make pretty much everything here,” says Abdo. “No clinic ever makes the knee joints or the feet – they are made commercially – but we make the silicone coverings, the sockets, and we assemble and fit the prostheses. We are the only centre in London that makes this high-definition silicone covering. In fact, I think only one other company in the UK does that.”
Sadly, as a result of armed conflict, we see many more amputees on the streets of Britain, but has there been a shift in our attitude towards disability? Yes, insists Georgy.
“When I was a child people were often embarrassed or downright hostile. I was brought up to minimize my disability and not talk about it, but these days the mindset has completely changed.”
For Abdo, there is still work to be done, and he is determined to keep doing it.
“It is still very hard in Africa and Asia for an amputee; there is still a stigma attached. But in Europe, particularly since the Afghan War and the Paralympics, there has been so much exposure that attitudes have changed. Technology has also improved drastically over the past 10 years – it’s had to. No longer do people want just to get about. They want to live life much more fully.”
The bionic world is here.
The London Prosthetic Centre; tel: (020) 8789 6565; visit: thelondonprosthetics.com