By Tracy Courage :: Photography by Jamison Mosley
Prosthetics have come such a long way that it can be hard to tell whether or not someone is missing a limb. With advanced technology, prosthetics look real and simulate the body’s natural movement.
Dr. Michael Kaczkowski, a specialist at the Center for Alloplastic Facial Reconstruction and Arkansas Artificial Eye Clinic and Prosthetics Clinic in Little Rock, develops and designs prosthetics that are both lifelike and restorative. For the past 28 years, he’s been creating custom anaplastology restorations for most anything missing on the human body. Patients from all over the world seek out his services.
In Arkansas, he works closely with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and Arkansas Children’s Hospital. Eyes are one of his specialties, and he has worked with numerous children born with microphthalmia, or small eye syndrome. Without intervention, the child’s face grows asymmetrically.
Kaczkowski creates prosthetic tissue expanders. Newer expanders are created as the child grows, and when the child is old enough, Kaczkowski creates a custom eye that looks lifelike due to the variations of depth.
There’s a mix of technology and artistry that goes into Kaczkowski’s work.
“Because this is a specialized, we get facial patients who come from throughout country and other countries.”
Arm and leg prosthetics are far more common. Nearly 2 million people in the U.S. are living without a limb. A majority of those are below-the-knee amputees who have lost a limb due to vascular disorders, including diabetes.
With some time and adjustment, though, amputees find that they can continue to do the activities they love.
Thomas Long, 56, of Sherwood, has lived with a prosthetic leg for nearly 30 years after losing his leg in a workplace accident. He had six surgeries over the first year, and just when he was on the mend, a staph infection set in and doctors had to amputate below his right knee.
Long says he didn’t want to limp.
“I thought, ‘how can I make this leg walk like it’s supposed to? It’s only as good as it is. If I can’t make the prosthetic leg walk like my real leg, I’ll make my real leg walk like my prosthetic.’ I started out walking very odd, but I had a rhythm going. Now no one knows I have a prosthetic leg unless I tell them.”
He keeps his weight in check, exercises daily and maintains a positive attitude.
“You have to think positive,” he says. “It’s very possible that I’m getting around better than if my other leg had been saved.”
Over the years, Long has been outfitted with newer models as technology has improved. His current prosthetic is an elevated vacuum device for suspension and an energy-storing hydraulic foot and ankle that give him some spring in his step. Gel liners help absorb the blunt force on his stump.
“The suction system makes it feel like the stump and the prosthetic are one,” he says. “It’s very realistic.”
One thing that has not changed with newer technology: his phantom foot pains.
“I’ve always had the sensation that my foot was still there,” says Long. “It used to bother me, but now it’s kind of like an old friend.”
Darcy Dining, 68, of Little Rock, an above-the-knee amputee, has always loved water skiing. In 1967, she fell while skiing at Greers Ferry Lake and a trip to the ER revealed that she had bone cancer. She lost her right leg, but she quickly adjusted to her wooden leg prosthetic.
“Ironically, I had been trying to learn to ski on one ski, and little did I know later that was exactly what I would be doing,” she says. “I’ve learned that when you have a prosthetic, you still do things. You just do them differently.”
Three months ago, Frank Snell, a certified and licensed prosthetist/orthotist and a fellow of the American Academy of Orthotics and Prosthetics outfitted Dining with a Linx microprocessor knee and ankle, which she calls “the latest and greatest technology.”
“The microprocessor in the knee talks to the microprocessor in the ankle,” she says. “It’s amazing. When I sit down, the knee tells the ankle to relax so my foot is not sticking up in the air.”
The technology also makes it easier to walk on uneven surfaces.
“I’m able to walk on the ground or grass or uneven areas with confidence,” she says. “The knee will lock in place and then when I pick up my foot, it unlocks. I feel very safe and secure and stable. Sometimes people will look at it and ask, ‘Is that your bad leg?’ I never consider it a bad leg. It’s a good leg. It does what it’s supposed to do and more.”
In March, Dining was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer, and is being treated at UAMS Cancer Institute. In August, she was also diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I say I’ve had the 3Bs of cancer: bone, brain and breast,” she says.
In 2012, Jessica Goforth, 36, of Alexander, got what she thought was the flu. Her husband Nick found her unconscious and purple. Streptococcus had gotten in her blood, and sepsis had set in. She lost both legs and parts of five fingers.
“I had to wait longer for prosthetics than most because I had skin damage due to the lack of oxygen to my skin,” she recalls. “I had a lot of healing to do.”
She started with basic prosthetics, which were the lightest weight on her sensitive skin and scars. As she healed, she upgraded to hydraulic ankles, and in July, she returned to Hanger Clinic: Prosthetics & Orthotics in Little Rock and upgraded to a manual vacuum system and microprocessor ankles that can “read” the type of terrain she’s on and help stabilize her.
“Going up and down inclines is easier now,” she says.
That was extremely important for Jessica. Both she and Nick majored in wildlife biology at University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where they met, and the couple enjoys being outdoors.
“I don’t do hard-core stuff, but we like to camp and hike,” she says.
Both Jessica and Nick have their scuba diving certification. And water sports are as easy as putting on an older prosthetic and swapping out her computerized ankles with a special set of “water ankles.”