When he was only 7 years old, Harry Zemmer received his first pair of artificial legs from Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital.
“They were like hollow logs,” recalls Harry, a 60-year-old Ann Arbor man who was born without fully developed lower limbs. “There were no knees.”
With hydraulics, microprocessors, braking mechanisms, energy-saving technology and myriad adjustments for torque and flexibility, today’s artificial limbs are vastly different from the prosthetics of old.
Microprocessor-controlled knees have been around for at least 15 years, but they continue to grow more and more sophisticated, says Patrick Logan, Mary Free Bed’s vice president of orthotics and prosthetics.
“These give me lots of flexibility and lots of nuance,” Harry says of his four-year-old C-Legs. “When you have two artificial legs like I do, balance is the hard part.”
Harry stopped by Mary Free Bed in mid-October for an adjustment. He found himself stumbling on occasion, so he figured it was time for a tune-up. “He kept stubbing his right toe, and then he fell once in the kitchen,” says his wife, Lynn.
These days, knees can be adjusted via remote control for different activities, such as walking, biking, standing or taking the stairs. Newer ones even have Bluetooth wireless technology so therapists, prosthetists and even patients can make changes to the response of the prosthetic knee. On a more sophisticated level, a prosthetist can re-program the knee and track how it has performed for the patient.
“Every set of legs is a little different, it just takes a little time to adjust,” Harry says.
Mary Free Bed certified prosthetist Katie Johnson and Cale Konetchy, a lower extremity prosthetics specialist with Otto Bock Health Care, worked with Harry on adjustments to his knees and ankles. They discussed different settings based on specific activities, such as moving forward on a flat surface versus walking up stairs or moving side-to-side in a kitchen or other confined space.
“Sometimes my legs are too smart for their own good,” Harry joked. “I think they’re trying to teach this old dog some new tricks.”