In step with technology

Howard Orthotics fits Drum soldier with first-in-state BiOM

Roger R. Howard tightens Army Spc. Matthew Hayes' biometric foot as he recieves the first one of its kind in Upstate New York, at Dr. Howard's Watertown office. Spc. Hayes lost his leg in Northern Afghanistan, and the new battery operated prosthetic acts much like a regular foot. Photo by Justin Sorensen.

By Joleene Des Rosiers
NNY Business

It was a big day for 22-year-old Army Spc. Matthew Hayes. For the past several months, he has been working with Roger Howard of Howard Orthotics and Prosthetics, Watertown, to get fitted with what is known as a BiOM ankle and foot: the first bionic lower leg system created to replace lost muscle function normally and naturally.

A Fort Drum soldier originally from Michigan, Spc. Hayes lost his lower right leg while overseas.

“I was on a mission in Northern Afghanistan and I stepped on an anti-personnel mine, which pretty much shredded my right leg and did some damage to the left. They had to amputate it,” he said.

That meant big changes for the soldier. He imagined he would spend the rest of his days “dragging around a prosthetic,” as he put it. But thanks to Mr. Howard, Spc. Hayes will be walking very closely to the way he did before he lost his lower leg.

“The BiOM foot is changing everything in the name of prosthetics,” Mr. Howard said. “The foot actually propels the amputee to activate the ankle portion of the unit. The ankle is able to think for itself. It’s been proven that the ankle normalizes the energy expended by an amputee as compared to a normal ablebodied individual. Typically, an amputee will spend two to three times more energy just to walk. But not anymore, not with the BiOM foot.”

The entire unit is powered by several microprocessors, which are brought to life through a battery pack. Just as a cell phone needs charging regularly, so do the battery packs. As Mr. Howard fits the carefully designed foot onto the soldier, he describes the significant difference between his old prosthetic and the BiOM.

“On the BiOM it feels like I’m walking again,” Spc. Hayes explained. “I feel like I have more of something to balance myself on. I kind of drag the other one around. This one I don’t drag at all. I just take a step and it pushes me forward and I feel like I’m actually walking. When I first got onto a prosthetic, I thought learning how to walk would be like learning how to ride a bike again. But that wasn’t the case. Yet with this new foot, it seems much easier to get back into what feels like me walking again.”

The bionic units are designed by iWalk in Massachusetts. Sean Sweeny, the regional director of iWalk, says the BiOM is the first in a series of products that will emulate or even augment physiological function through electromechanical replacement. Mr. Sweeny looks on as Mr. Howard fits Spc. Hayes with the foot.

“When he says it’s easier for him to walk with the new foot it’s because the BiOM is recreating the power,” Mr. Sweeny explained. “When he said he was dragging his prosthesis along, that’s essentially what he was doing. He was relying on that prosthesis, but it wasn’t creating energy for him. The new foot is a passive prosthetic that is actually creating the energy he needs to walk normally.”

Mr. Howard is the first certified prosthetist-orthotist to fit the BiOM on an amputee in Upstate New York and is proud to be. He is excited about the new opportunity his office offers. Mr. Howard’s first experience with a BiOM unit brought him to Washington, D.C., where a Fort Drum soldier was learning to walk again after a similar accident.

“I went to the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center to assist with a project study for a microprocessor knee about a year and a half ago,” he said. “We worked well facilitating a solider here at Fort Drum during the study. It’s allowed the soldier to come to our office for adjustments as opposed to going out of state and spending all sorts of money to get there.”

Having a local location is a huge benefit for soldiers and other amputees. Travel is no longer an issue, as Howard Orthotic and Prosthetics is now certified to take care of wounded warriors with the latest technology at the office in Watertown. The commercialization of true bionic products by iWalk in continuing, and Mr. Howard is ready and willing to lead his patients by way of the bionic systems.

For more information on BiOM, visit www.iwalk.com.