The Sunshine story: Woman who lost foot in Boston marathon bombing dances again

Mar 22, 2014, 09:03 IST | Agencies

The dance teacher spent a year working with Hugh Herr, who created a revolutionary prosthetic limb for her

Vancouver: After dance teacher Adrianne Haslet-Davis lost part of her leg in the Boston Marathon bombing last year, she made a promise to herself that she would perform again.

Despite knowing her life had changed, Haslet-Davis was determined to return to her passion
Despite knowing her life had changed, Haslet-Davis was determined to return to her passion

She spent the next year of her life working with Hugh Herr, who outfitted her with a revolutionary prosthetic limb, to relearn the basic dance moves that once came naturally to her.

Onstage at TED in Vancouver on Wednesday, she danced publicly for the first time since her amputation. The audience stood on their feet throughout Haslet-Davis’ performance, as she sashayed across the stage. Meanwhile, Herr, who was speaking at the conference, stood to Haslet-Davis’ right, out of the spotlight, beaming with pride.

Herr, who heads MIT’s Biomechatronics research group, said, “I understood her dream to return to dance.” Herr, who is a double amputee, at age 7, wanted to be the world’s greatest mountain climber; but that dream almost fell apart when he had a climbing accident at age 17, and lost both legs due to severe frostbite.

Like Haslet-Davis, Herr was determined to return to his passion for him, that was the mountain. So, when Haslet-Davis wanted to dance again, he agreed to make that happen, knowing full well that building a limb that would allow this movement would be one of the toughest challenges of his career.

“It was so new, we’d never looked at something like dance,” he said. Because limbs like Haslet-Davis’ are made for the individual, it feels natural the second she puts it on no training required.

“The value of carefully modeling normal human function is that when you fit the device to the human, [she] already knows it,” Herr said. “Patients often say ‘I have my body back’. We’ve taken the first step. But by no means is it the last.”

How she got her 'body back'
Herr and his team studied a person of similar size to Haslet-Davis. They tracked points of the subject’s body as it moved across a floor, to measure things like torque and movement. Using that data, they developed a control algorithm that links sensors on the limb to a motor inside it, making it function like a spinal cord. In Herr’s words, he “stole from nature” to create a synthetic material that moves like flesh.

What happened on April 15
“I said my foot hurt, and he held up my foot, and we both just screamed.” That’s how Adrianne Haslet-Davis remembers the immediate aftermath of the explosions at the Boston Marathon on April 15. She was attending the marathon as a spectator with her husband, airman Adam Davis, who had just gotten back from Afghanistan.

>> Haslet-Davis was a spectator at the Boston marathon last year 
>> Doctors amputated her leg 5 inches below the knee after she was hit by the second bomb
>> Hugh Herr, who created her prosthetic limb, had also lost both his legs to severe frostbite at age 17

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