February 18, 2008

Rebuilding Bryan Anderson

Two years ago, a bomb in Iraq took his legs and an arm. Now Bryan Anderson needs a hand that won't break all the time when he's skateboarding or, someday, holding his kids. And is it too much to ask that wheelchairs start looking a little cooler? As Anderson and other veterans push the technology, the technology responds.

Bryan Anderson's legs keep falling off.

Thin and wiry, he started his second tour in Iraq weighing 135 pounds, carried on a five-foot-seven-inch frame. He came home from the yearlong deployment two months early, thirty-five pounds lighter and about two feet shorter, missing both legs across the thigh, his left arm below the elbow, and his right index fingertip. He learned to walk again, to live his life, one of roughly 750 amputees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are young men in a hurry. They ride bicycles and run marathons and pick up their children, satisfying our desire for speedy results and neat resolutions. Their demands for artificial limbs that perform closer to the flesh and bone they lost are driving dollars into far-out technologies like robotic limbs that move by thought control. But normalcy remains elusive, which brings Anderson, twenty-six years old, to Oklahoma City on a cool fall day for an appointment with his pit crew at the Hanger Orthopedic Group. The legs keep falling off, he says. And he keeps getting these sores.

Anderson had been living on his prosthetic legs, hadn't touched the wheelchair in months. But last summer a red spot the size of a pimple appeared on the tip of his left leg. The area grew more swollen and tender, so painful that he couldn't wear his legs. The freedom he'd gained was gone. Emergency-room doctors drained fluid from the infected area and loaded him with antibiotics. The infection subsided, but other pains emerged as his legs rubbed against the sockets, causing the skin to break down. And pain aside, his stumps were slipping out of their sockets. The body changes every day -- salty food expands it, sweating shrinks it -- a problem made worse for Anderson. His left leg is about eight inches long, and his right leg half that, which makes a good fit difficult.

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