Rudy Salas never could have played golf with his old prosthetic leg.
The first prosthetic the 66-year-old Vietnam veteran received was made of heavy leather, and strapped on through a harness on his left thigh and a belt around his waist. He would have to change the inner socket of the cumbersome leg every time he sweated, because the dampness made it difficult to walk. Also, the stiff attached foot allowed for no ankle movement.
The possibility of effectively golfing, let alone becoming commander of the Tampa-based Amputee Veterans of America Support Team (AVAST) Color Guard, the only amputee color guard in the nation, was slim at best.
Fortunately for Salas, times and science have changed — and they are still improving.
Thanks to a new contract with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Florida State University is participating in a new project aimed at addressing shortcomings of prosthetic socket systems — the part where an amputee's limb connects to the prosthetic. The two-year, $4.4 million project is being conducted by a research team that includes FSU's High-Performance Materials Institute, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Prosthetic and Orthotic Associates, Quantum Motion Medical and St. Petersburg College.
While the industry has evolved since Salas received his first prosthetic leg, Changchun Zeng, an assistant professor at the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering, said the purpose of the project is to address some of the shortcomings prosthetic patients are still experiencing, including uncontrollable heat and moisture in the socket.
"We aren't re-inventing everything from scratch," Zeng said. "We can leverage what we are good at, and find a practical application in this area."
Zeng said one of the key components of the prototype that his team is creating is finding a lightweight but durable material that will have the ability to expand and contract with the leg as needed to increase comfort. Also, the prototype would include a miniature air conditioning system into the liner so the temperature can be controlled, reducing moisture within the socket. Vital information will also be drawn from the socket environment, including pressure, temperature and moisture, and wirelessly transmitted to prosthetic practitioners to help provide an improved patient care.
Because the project is so complex and multifaceted, each member of the team focuses on a different aspect of producing the end product, Zeng said.
"We use a lot of our engineering and material expertise, trying to apply them into this prosthetic field," he said. "Practitioners understand the physiological part and dealing with patient care. But materials, manufacturing and technology is traditionally not where their focus is. This is where our expertise and capabilities come in."
Stan Patterson, founder of Prosthetic and Orthotic Associates, has several patents on developments he's made to prosthetic materials. This project, he said, is not only about taking some of his products and taking those advancements a step further, but about taking engineering and mechanical advancements and clinically implementing them.
"It's a game-changer," Patterson said.
While the project could take years to complete, Zeng said he's received a renewed sense of responsibility working on the project, because the end result could create an improved quality of life for many Americans.
"In engineering, we know our work is going to be used somewhere, but we don't get to see the immediate impact," Zeng said. "We are trying to put together something people can use immediately so that's very rewarding."
Salas said, since he got his first prosthetic, the improvement in materials and new products on the market are "unbelievable." He thinks it's a worthwhile effort to provide such a critical service to veterans.
"First of all, we got hurt and injured serving our country," Salas said. "I think the country does have some responsibility in helping us adapt and integrate back into society. None of us asked to be hurt, but we were hurt doing our job. Anything they can do for us is definitely a plus."