When Randy Earl returns to work today as a volunteer at the Shedd Aquarium, he'll have a little added support.
Earl, 64, is a 25-year amputee from Joliet. Doctors removed part of his right arm below the elbow and part of his right leg below the knee following an accident on the job. Earl was electrocuted while working on a power line for ComEd, which required the amputations.
Since then, he's tried a number of prosthetics, and so, he said he was skeptical about his doctor's latest idea for him to try a new product, and become the first man in the Chicago area to wear a BiOM—a new powered prosthetic device by iWalk.
"I've been kind of the guinea pig around here," Earl said recently at Scheck and Siress in Oak Park where he was getting his new prosthetic fitted and calibrated.
Earl is on his feet a lot. At his job at the Shedd, Earl said he "floats around" helping visitors navigate their way around the massive aquarium. But Earl is also active in his daily life, particularly enjoying bike riding.
"I can't believe something can make such a difference," Earl said of the BiOM prosthetic. "It's so much better than anything else I've had."
Shawn Ligeikis, 39, of Brookfield, was another patient of Scheck and Siress to be fitted with a BiOM prosthetic in Oak Park recently. Ligeikis lost part of his leg below the knee after an accident while he was working for the Countryside Public Works Department. In July 2007, Ligeikis was working when a car rear-ended a truck that was parked behind a cherry picker, pinning his leg in between.
Like Earl, Ligeikis has to be mobile for work—climbing hills in the village's parks, plowing and especially in the fall when crews rake leaves in the village's streets.
It was Ligeikis' first chance to try out the new prosthetic and see it would work for him. Like Earl, he admitted he was initially skeptical, particularly because of the added weight of the BiOM, which weighs nearly four pounds.
As prosthetist John Angelico fitted the BiOM on his leg, the two joked and talked about the advantages of his new ankle. Ligeikis' first few steps on the new prosthetic were without any additional power from the device as he got a feel for the weight and made sure the fitting was right.
Then it was switched on, and suddenly, Ligeikis was propelled slightly forward—a new sensation that at once was met with a wide grin.
Powered Support Never Felt So Good
The BiOM, said Brian Frasure, director of clinical operations for iWalk, offers amputees a new sensation that is different from current prosthetics on the market because it is powered. Whereas Earl and Ligieikis had previously been performing most of their leg movements with their hips and legs, the ankle support on the BiOM gives them an extra lift with each step.
"It feels more comfortable, more natural," Earl explained.
The BiOM is additionally calibrated for each patient’s movement via a tablet computer controlled by their physicians.
Frasure, who also wears a BiOM, came to iWalk specifically after trying their product.
"It impressed me so much I knew I wanted to work for them," Frasure said.
Frasure said that due to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been additional seed money in the prosthetics industry to design products that would help wounded veterans. He envisions a smartphone app in the product's future that will enable users to change the power to the BiOM as needed, for hiking as an example, when one might need more support walking uphill, and less walking down. Frasure said he also like to see the product get smaller, lighter and have a longer battery life.
"It's still the big cell phone right now," Frasure said. He expects the technology to soon be expanded to include help for people who use braces to walk.
"It's going to be more far-reaching than just prosthetics," he said.
At the moment, the BiOM is only available for patients who were injured on the job or for veterans, but Frasure said the product would be rolling out to everyone sometime next year.
Getting Back to Work
The BiOM means learning a new way of walking for patients like Earl and Ligeikis, and with it, more freedom.
"We'll have to get used to each other," Earl said of the product. "It's a honeymoon so to speak. "
Both men had similar high hopes for their use of the BiOM as an improvement to their lives.
But, as Earl returns to work today, he's particularly looking forward to less strain on his knee and mastering the many stairs of the Shedd with ease.