Carlos Gonzalez stands out from an athletic group gathered on a grassy field at the UCSF Mission Bay campus. The gregarious 32-year-old sports a stylish fauxhawk and walks with a confident yet understated swagger. He's training to become a mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter.
The group looks like a slice of the Bay Area: a multiracial gathering - white, black, Latino, Asian, biracial - of men and women in their early 20s to late 40s.
As diverse as they are, they came together one recent spring afternoon for a common purpose: to participate in UCSF's Amputee Comprehensive Training (ACT) program at the Orthopaedic Institute, to push themselves further than they had ever imagined possible. They came together because they are bonded by a singular experience: all have lost a leg and are learning to push physical boundaries with the help of state-of-the-art artificial limbs.
Some lost their legs early in life due to birth defects. Others lost them later in life, after cancer, motor vehicle accidents or life-threatening bacterial infections robbed them of a limb.
Beyond Just Walking Again
"We work with amputees who want to do more than just learn to walk again with their artificial legs," said Alex Hetherington, a prosthetist with the Orthotics & Prosthetics Centers at UCSF, where experts customize artificial limbs and train patients who have athletic goals.
"We take them from the initial fit to learning the means of running, biking, or whatever activities or goals that our patients may have. Whether it's providing that custom prosthesis, or the physical training involved, we have athletic trainers and access to unlimited resources to take these athletes to the next level."
The day-long training program, held on May 4, 2012, involved a host of evaluations and boot camp-style conditioning exercises designed to ensure that the athletes' artificial legs would do what they need them to do, as well as training and conditioning. A motion-capturing computer program analyzed their gaits and trainers took them through a gauntlet of conditioning programs including sprint exercises, spinning (cycling) classes, rock climbing, kickboxing classes, and military PT (Physical Training) style exercises designed to strengthen their bodies.
The program builds on the Orthotic & Prosthetic Center's daily work of evaluating, designing, custom fitting and manufacturing all types of orthoses (braces) and prostheses (artificial limbs). The team includes doctors, a physical therapist, a trainer, and experts in orthotics and prosthetics who help develop an individualized patient care and rehabilitation plan.
"There's definitely a gray area after patients undergo an amputation, undergo physical therapy and are sort of set off into the world without any additional training or resources," said Matthew Garibaldi, CPO, director of the Orthotics & Prosthetics Centers at UCSF. "We are able to bridge that gap and provide something that we really haven't been able to do in a clinical setting before."