DUNCAN — When an IED blast robbed one veteran of his greatest pleasures in life, he traveled all the way from Mobile, Ala., to Duncan for the solution to his problem.
U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Gregory Edwards had served during the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 and witnessed the toppling of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad.
But on Oct. 21, 2006, during his third deployment, his luck ran out. Edwards was on patrol with Alpha Company in Ramadi, Iraq, doing house-to-house searches. Without warning, a hidden improvised explosive device blew up.
The blast resulted in the loss of both his legs and a shattered left hand.
Rather than dwelling on what the war cost him personally, he chooses to focus on the lasting benefits his sacrifice helped bring about.
“I lost my legs, not for this country, but for the country of Iraq, so their children will be able to run around, just like mine. If time was turned back, I’d do it all over again,” Edwards said.
Despite all he has been through, he remains humble about his service. When people stop to thank him for his service he says, “I don’t think I need to be thanked for my service. I chose this. I know that being blown up or dying is one of the hazards of my job. If you don’t expect to get hurt as a Marine infantryman, you’re in the wrong line of work.”
In 2007, the nonprofit organization Homes For Our Troops presented Edwards with a new home in Alabama. As touching as this gesture was, Edwards still longed to get back his former quality of life.
That quest eventually led him to Dream Team Prosthetics in Duncan, after seeing videos of its patients walking independently, driving vehicles, going down stairs, hunting and fishing — in short, all the things he wanted to get back to doing himself.
Chad Simpson, Dream Team Prosthetics’ clinical director, said combat veterans come to them from all over the country. Edwards is one of three veterans from out of state they’ve seen so far this year. They’ve also helped a couple of Vietnam veterans from the local area.
“Our expertise is designing a custom socket interface for individuals with significant limb trauma such as those sustained on the battlefield,” Simpson explained.
“With Greg, obviously he’s got a traumatic amputation from a blast injury from an IED. And with that, there’s a lot of complications that come from that,” he continued.
One thing medical professionals learned from the large number of victims who suffered injuries like Edwards’ was that in younger people, bone spurs start growing from the ends of amputated limbs. The jagged spurs can be excruciatingly painful for people using a prosthesis.
“Not always can you go in there and surgically remove that without it coming back and being a little bit more aggressive after the surgery,” Simpson noted.
One of Edwards’ residual limbs has a lot of this bony overgrowth, also known as heterotopic ossification.
“So there are a lot of skin grafts, a lot of really bony prominences that really make it difficult to fit a prosthesis and make it comfortable,” Simpson said.
“Part of what we do is just kind of mapping around all those bony prominences and that unique scar tissue and hopefully develop something that allows him to wear (the prosthesis) for long periods of time without any kind of issues.
“When we’re creating a prosthesis for someone who’s going to drive a motorcycle or a vehicle, obviously we need to ensure that it’s going to hold well onto their body so that they can go from the gas (pedal) to the brake. In Greg Edwards’ case, he said he likes to spend a great deal of time on a motorcycle being able to shift gears.
“So with that, more in particular for his motorcycle, we do make an adjustment to his foot so that it’s a little bit canted in. When you’re watching that, it looks a little bit unusual, but it serves a really big purpose for him in his life and riding his motorcycle, which is what he’s passionate about and loves to do,” Simpson said.
The technology in Edwards’ new hydraulic legs first appeared about two decades ago and has continued to advance ever since. Randy Richardson, the owner of Dream Team Prosthetics, said each leg contains sensors that are constantly sensing Edwards’ movements.
Simpson said these include a gyroscope, accelerometers and strain gauges. The information they gather is being looked at 100 times per second and relayed back to a hydraulic cylinder.
“Based on where that person is, in time and space, over their knee or with their knee, it opens and closes those valves (that regulate the hydraulic fluid) to either give less resistance or more resistance as they’re going through their gait cycle,” Simpson explained.
The final design utilizes carbon composite material in the outer structure for enhanced strength and support, making it lightweight. Unlike the carbon fibers that the aerospace industry uses in fuselages and wings, “the carbon that we use is more of a carbon braid. And our process is using an Epoxy resin with it, and then doing the thermosetting,” Simpson said.
The inner socket is a very soft, pliable bio-elastic material that is thermoformed to match the shape of the residual limbs, providing a soft, cushioned interface for maximum comfort allowing Edwards to wear the prosthesis daily for extended periods of time.
Dream Team’s prosthetic approach is to try not to have patients swapping out multiple legs to engage in different activities. They use the X-3 knee system, which offers Edwards six different modes. He controls which mode he wants to use from an app on his phone. Motorcycle mode limits the flexion of the knee. It won’t go beyond a certain point, and this allows him to shift gears.
He has another mode for working the clutch in his standard-transmission automobile. There’s even a water mode, because Edwards likes to spend time at the ocean, lakes and creeks.
“He’s an avid hunter and fisherman as well. So there are modes in there that can be custom-tailored to his particular lifestyle and other activities,” Simpson said.
“I think the main goal of all of us here at Dream Team is to give back to somebody all of the functionality in their life that we can. And again, like in Greg Edwards’ particular case, we want him to be able to drive a standard shift automobile, an automatic automobile, a motorcycle, four-wheelers, going hunting, fishing and basically everything that he was doing in his life prior to his injury. And I think that’s true for every patient that we treat. We want them to get back to as normal a life as we can,” Simpson said.
The clinical director said he has seen quite a bit of change in the prosthetics field over his 24-year career.
“Unfortunately, that change comes about because of war or conflict. However, it is amazing because those same sacrifices do benefit the civilian population as well as the veteran population,” he said.