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Students learn about life without limits

Union Leader Correspondent

April 20. 2013 3:14AM
Bedford resident Scott Cummings and Jillian Urban of Next Step Bionics & Prosthetics demonstrate how a prosthetic and bionic arm works during an assembly Friday at Ross Lurgio Middle School in Bedford. (HENRY METZ/Union Leader Correspondent)

BEDFORD - Edward Joyce, principal of Ross A. Lurgio Middle School, wanted to remind his students - in light of all that's happened in Boston and its neighboring suburbs this week - that while "there are some bad guys in the world, there's way more good guys."

And some of those good guys graced the stage at the Bedford High School theater Friday, telling their stories of how, despite being amputees, they still live active and full lives.

The amputees and the people who designed the prosthetic limbs they were fitted with addressed a student assembly that capped off a school-wide reading assignment.

Over the course of the past year, students read "The Running Dream" by Wendelin VanDraanen, a novel about a 16-year-old girl who loses her leg but fights through the pain and eventually comes to understand that she can live a fulfilling life without pity and without limitations. Passages from the book were read throughout the assembly.

Bedford resident Matthew Alburquerque, president of Next Step Bionics & Prosthetics, told the students that the theme of "The Running Dream" is "to see me, not my condition," and by presenting some of the people his company has fitted with prosthetics and the employees who designed them, the students could get to that point of seeing the person, not the condition.

"Middle school is a tipping point," Alburquerque said. "Either they're going to grow into ignorance or they grow into compassionate people. In high school it's too late; in third grade it's too early."

Next Step Bionics & Prosthetics is a New England-based company with offices in Manchester, Newton, Mass., and Warwick, R.I., said Alburquerque.

Jason Lalla walked onto the stage in long pants and narrated a video showing a one-legged man skiing down what appeared to be an extreme slope. As the video captured the attention of the middle school students, Lalla disappeared from the stage, and then reappeared after the video ended, wearing shorts and revealing his prosthetic limb.

"What did you think of that guy?" Lalla asked the students. "Pretty cool, huh? What would you say if I told you that was me?"

Before becoming an employee of Next Step Bionics & Prosthetics, Lalla was a paralympian, winning a gold medal in Nagano, Japan, in 1998, a silver and bronze medal in Utah in 2002 and a gold medal in Switzerland in 2006.

"I've always had a competitive drive," Lalla told the students. "That was still in me. That's something you don't take away with a limb." Lalla lost his leg in a motorcycle accident in 1998.

David Taylor, 26, a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, lost his leg during one of his three tours of duty. He used his appearance on the stage to demonstrate how he's able to walk up stairs and any incline, no matter how steep. Assisting him in the demonstration was Next Step prosthetist Scott Cummings, one of the designers of the prosthetic limbs at Next Step.

"As we see these technological advances, the line between man and machine is becoming blurred," he said.

Alexis "Lexy" Morel, 16, was just 13 when she was diagnosed with bone cancer. She was diagnosed in May 2010, found out in July that she would be a "below knee amputee," and underwent surgery in August of that year. In telling her story, she said she experienced many of the same emotions the fictional character in "The Running Dream" experienced.

Morel was the last of the speakers for the assembly, making a surprise appearance by running from the back of the auditorium and bounding onto the stage while a video of her was projecting onto a screen.

"It was my freshman year of high school and I was at a brand new school," said Morel. "I was scared, I didn't want to go to school. But my Mom told me, "Lexy, get up and get going.'" She got going to the point where she's now a Junior New England Patriots cheerleader and a Young Marine.

"When I was first diagnosed, I never thought I was going to be a runner," she told the students. "I'm not only a runner, now I'm a cheerleader."

Autumn Wallace, a 13-year-old Lurgio student who'll be attending Bedford High School next year, found much to like about Friday's presentation.

"I thought it was very inspiring," she said. "It just showed me that people who have disabilities are still people."

Isabelle Wheeler, also 13, was equally impressed. "I just thought it was amazing that they're still able to do everything we can do," she said.

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