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Military expanding its first West Coast amputee center

first_imgInjuries like that would once have ended military service, but not now. Between 17 percent and 20 percent of amputees remain on active duty, compared with just 3 percent in the Vietnam War, Harsch said, and there is a good chance Jacobs will be able to rejoin a Marine squad. “Is it realistic? Absolutely,” said Harsch, 36, who has been fine-tuning Jacobs’ prosthetic leg. “You never know how somebody is going to do; the heart and the will overpower pretty much anything.” After eight months of surgeries and excruciating pain, Jacobs was told his shattered left heel would never again bear weight. He decided to amputate his leg below the knee. “They said that I would walk better on a prosthetic on my worst day than I would on the best day if they saved my leg,” said Jacobs, of Steamboat Springs, Colo. Within days of his amputation, Jacobs took his first steps. Fitted with a super-light carbon-fiber leg, Jacobs can now run. His new foot flexes to preserve more kinetic energy than older devices. SAN DIEGO – Where some see scarred stumps and horrific wounds, Peter Harsch sees carbon-fiber feet, hydraulic legs and bionic knees. Harsch became the Navy Medical Center San Diego’s first full-time prosthetist last fall as part of the military’s push to treat hundreds of troops who have lost arms and legs in Iraq and Afghanistan. He heads the military’s first major amputee center on the West Coast and only its third in the country. The department houses 17 patients, but will expand to 40 beds by July and, depending on demand, may grow to 100 beds. It’s a key part of a unit the Navy is building to treat traumatic brain injury, serious burns, combat stress and other debilitating battlefield injuries. Petty Officer Third Class Daniel Jacobs’ legs were shredded and his hands lacerated in a roadside bomb attack in Ramadi in February 2006. Two Marines in his Humvee died. His hands healed, Jacobs, 21, is now focused on returning to Iraq. Despite his wounds and a phantom nerve pain from where his leg once was, that’s the only place he wants to be. “I just miss being with my guys,” he said. Army figures show that 571 U.S. servicemen and women lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan as of April 1. About two-thirds are from the Army and much of the rest are Marines. More than 100 lost more than one limb. The Navy expanded the amputee treatment center at its San Diego hospital to let injured West Coast servicemen be closer to their families. The military’s two other main centers are at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and Brooke Army Medical Center in Houston. After graduating from California State University, Dominguez Hills, in prosthetics in 1998, Harsch worked as a private clinician, then at a prosthetics company. When the war in Iraq began, he started consulting for the military and was offered the Navy hospital position. Harsch said accepting the job was a no-brainer. He knew he could focus on patients instead of wrangling with insurance companies over expensive prosthetics. Several patients have lost both legs at a replacement cost of $120,000, a figure that many insurers would balk at. Wars unleash money for technological advances. In the last four years, Harsch has seen a surge in development of artificial limbs. One innovation is the bionic knee. The $80,000 device has an internal motor that enables the wearer to stand up more easily and walk up stairs. Microprocessor knees mimic a wearer’s natural gait and make constant adjustments as terrain and walking speed change. Harsch’s arsenal includes electronic arms that the wearer controls by firing specific muscles in their stump. Harsch is not an amputee but his life has long been entwined with those who have lost limbs. He competed last year in the “The Amazing Race” television show with a woman who has an artificial leg. He coaches for the U.S. Paralymics team. His patients include Army Spc. Alroy Billiman, who lost his right arm in November when the Humvee he was driving struck a roadside bomb in Iraq’s Al Anbar province. Billiman, 27, is learning how to fire the muscles in the stump of his myoelectric arm. “I just want to be a productive citizen,” said Billiman. He plans to move to New Mexico. 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img

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