UPMC event focuses on prosthetic leg technology advancements
Rebecca Levenberg of Philadelphia hopped on her bicycle and headed to her job as a teacher on a chilly fall day two years ago.
She never got there.
A garbage truck traveling next to her turned into her bike lane, running over her and severely injuring her leg, breaking several ribs and collapsing a lung. Doctors saved Levenberg's life but had to amputate her left leg.
Nearly two years after the Nov. 9, 2010, accident, Levenberg, 43, is on a mission to walk 1,000 miles by year's end. She's logged about 770 and is learning to run and bicycle — even inline skate — again.
“Those were all parts of my life before the accident,” Levenberg said.
Prosthetic leg technology advancements that helped Levenberg and other above-knee amputees will be the focus of a free event on Nov. 13 in UPMC Mercy's Clark Auditorium.
Various computer-controlled legs will be demonstrated, including the Genium Bionic Prosthetic System, a civilian version of a leg developed in collaboration with the military for injured service members, which Levenberg uses.
“It works with my body better,” she said. “It doesn't feel heavy. It adjusts quickly to uneven ground and cracks.”
The Genium, developed by the Minneapolis-based company Ottobock, has been on the market for a year. It uses an accelerometer and gyroscope to detect the position of a person's leg, similar to technology used in Wii gaming systems, allowing wearers to move safely and efficiently.
Byron Backus, a certified prosthetist with Ottobock who will speak at the local event, said most people rarely think about their movements, but for people with prosthetics, walking is like driving during a snowstorm.
“It's snowing. It's blowing everywhere. How much are you concentrating on your driving? That's what it's like for your average amputee. They are thinking about every step they take,” he said.
Genium's technology helps change that, he said.
“Mentally, it frees them up immensely,” he said. “It knows where it is in relation to gravity. It knows if you're moving forward or backward.”
The technology is based on sensors analyzing points in the knee and ankle 100 times a second. By gathering information on the wearer's gait and pressure, a microprocessor controls a hydraulic cylinder, making the knee more stiff when necessary and more free-moving at other times, “just like our own knees,” Backus said.
It can rapidly change direction and remain stable. It allows wearers to step over obstacles in a more natural motion.
Those features helped Levenberg last week when Hurricane Sandy blew through Philadelphia and she needed to walk to the store for supplies.
“My balance was off a little because of the wind, but it would have been even worse if I had a different prosthetic,” she said.
Ali McWeeny, 24, of Ellensburg, Wash., lost her left leg above the knee in a July 2009 boating accident in which both her legs became trapped in the propeller. A track and field athlete, power lifter, coach and physical education teacher, McWeeny said the Genium is the best prosthetic she's found.
“It's the closest thing that's been able to allow me to do the things I do every day,” she said.
McWeeny, who also will be in Pittsburgh for the Nov. 13 event, had to save her life by tying tourniquets around her legs as she waited the five hours it took to get to the hospital. She'd lost 60 percent of her blood by the time she arrived.
When she awoke with her leg amputated, doctors told her she'd have to change her hobbies. McWeeny, who's played sports since age 4, knew otherwise.
“I said, ‘That's not going to happen,' ” she said. “I'm far too dedicated.”
Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or firstname.lastname@example.org.