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November 10. 2011 10:29PM

Latest technology gives veteran wounded in Afghanistan an 'awesome' bionic leg


John Munoz Ramirez stepped on an improvised explosive device while on patrol in Afghanistan three years ago, losing his lower left leg. Ramirez is the first veteran in New Hampshire to be fitted with a PowerFoot BiOM, a lower-leg system that replicates muscles and tendons, with the goal of restoring natural movement for lower-limb amputees. (Courtesy)

MANCHESTER — Veterans around the state will be honored with tributes today, but one local vet has received something special: a new foot with bionic technology that allows him to walk almost as if he had never stepped on a bomb in Afghanistan three years ago.

John Munoz Ramirez is the first veteran in New Hampshire to be fitted with a PowerFoot BiOM, a lower-leg system that replicates muscles and tendons, with the goal of restoring natural movement for lower-limb amputees.

“It feels awesome,” said Munoz Ramirez during a recent demonstration of the device at Next Step Orthotics & Prosthetics in Manchester. “It's awesome to have that power back. I have the heel. I have the power to push off with my toe. It's almost as if I got my leg back.”

It is, in fact, a bionic leg, as noted by its manufacturer, the Bedford, Mass.,-based company iWalk.

The demonstration marked the first time Munoz Ramirez, who lives in Merrimack, was able to walk out the door with the device after working with Next Step to custom fit the device and get the hang of using it, a process that will continue over the coming weeks.

The leg replacement was funded by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, but the fitting process has occurred entirely at Next Step, a private rehabilitation center for amputees.

Watching Munoz Ramirez walk, one would never know he had an artificial leg, as he casually moved around and ascended and descended stairs with a bounce in his step. Only a look down revealed the high-tech lower leg and foot, which resembles something out of RoboCop, except for the claw stripes and U.S. Marine Corps stickers he's affixed to the device.

The last time Ramirez was able to walk with such ease was three years ago when the was on patrol in Afghanistan. On June 24, 2008, he stepped on an improvised explosive device, sending him flying into the air. He blacked out when he hit the ground, and when he woke up, his lower left leg was gone, as were three fingers on his left hand. He had also fractured his upper right femur and sustained a brain injury.

The severe injury to his upper right leg made using a conventional prosthetic for his left foot especially difficult, since amputees are forced to favor the intact limb. Because of PowerFoot's internal motors and sensors, its users expend no more energy than a normal walker would.

“A lot of amputees have their good side, and that can lead to a lot of problems,” said Matthew Albuquerque, the founder and president of Next Step. “With this they're able to spend time on both feet without favoring one side or the other.”

The bionic foot also has the advantage that it's easier to master and use than other prosthetic devices on the market; there's even a smartphone app that can calibrate the settings of the device.

Brian Frasure, a clinical specialist with the device maker iWalk, explained that it's powered with a lithium battery that can provide up to 1,000 foot-pounds of torque with each step, as well as six microprocessors that are used to sense the foot's surroundings. He likened it to the technology used in a Nintendo Wii.

Several amputees around the country now have been fitted with the device, but Frasure said it was especially satisfying to help veterans.

“Given the sacrifice they made, to provide this type technology that can really make a difference and return them to a more normal lifestyle, it certainly is rewarding,” he said.

Munoz Ramirez, meanwhile, is already thinking about pushing the limits of his new leg.

“Hopefully I'll be able to run — and run fast,” he said.


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