Local soldier, former Savannah cop among first with 'intuitive' knee prosthetic

By Corey Dickstein

From the Savannah Morning News

Eyeing a picnic table near the center of the courtyard, Michael Araujo and Randy Thran briskly paraded side-by-side across the brick-paved patio.

Upon reaching their target, the pair stopped, turned quickly, and strode back to where they came from, finishing with a step up onto the curb that lined the courtyard.

“Are we too fast for you?” Thran joked. “We can do it again. It’s no problem.”

Although the walk – about 20 yards total – posed no problem to either man Thursday morning, as recently as two months ago the maneuvers would have been challenging for both single-leg amputees.

In early June, though, Araujo, a 21-year-old Army specialist based at Fort Stewart, and Thran, a 48-year-old retired Savannah-Chatham police sergeant, were among the first Americans fitted with the Genium Bionic Prosthetic System, a $95,000 prosthetic touted as the world’s first “intuitive knee system.”

The Genium works a lot like Nintendo’s Wii, said Steve Miller, the prosthetist who fitted Araujo and Thran at Savannah’s Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics.

The knee “knows where it is in space,” Miller said. “The old technology would be like (a person) walking into a dark room – you can do it, but you have to be careful and think through your steps. (The Genium) is like walking into a room with the lights on.”

Through its complex sensory system – which includes three microprocessors that work with a gyroscope to measure three dimensional movements and an accelerometer to measure speed and direction of movement – the Genium is designed to anticipate its user’s movement.

That allows the new prosthetic – developed by Otto Bock Healthcare’s collaboration with the U.S. Military to design a prosthetic leg suitable for active wounded warriors – to move in a natural, multi-directional fashion, Miller said.

Not only does the Genium require almost zero effort from the user, he added, but it also drastically reduces wear and tear on his body.

So far, Aruajo and Thran agree with Miller’s claim.

There is no thought involved, Aruajo said.

“It literally just does it,” he said. “If you want to do anything you can do it with this knee.”

The Genium, he estimated, is his fifth prosthetic leg. And with each new leg and each advance in technology life gets a little easier.

But this prosthetic, the soldier said, is different.

“With long pants on you can’t even tell I’m an amputee,” Araujo said.

And, for him, that’s not even the best part.

Today, the soldier can play with his 2-year-old daughter Malia without having to worry about his prosthetic – at all.

“She runs and plays, and I can catch up with her,” Araujo said. “With other knees I’ve had, you have to wait for it to catch up to you – you’ve got to think about what it is you want it to do, can I even do it?

“Now, it’s a lot more natural. I’m never thinking any of that. I’m just playing with my daughter.”

Sudden changes

For Araujo and the other soldiers in the Fort Stewart-based 293rd Military Police Company, 385th Military Police Battalion, Oct. 16, 2009, started out like any other day.

Just outside of Kandahar, Afghanistan, Araujo – two months into his first deployment – set out with other soldiers on a mission to train members of the Afghani police force.

As the armored Humvee he rode in began to cross a small bridge, it triggered an improvised explosive device hidden beneath.

Sixteen tons of explosives launched the Humvee into the air.

Araujo and another soldier were seriously injured. Their squad leader, Staff Sgt. Christopher M. Rudzinski, was killed.

For more than a year, Araujo was hospital-bound suffering from multiple injuries as a result of the attack.

Doctors tried to save his leg, but eventually amputation was the only option.

“I asked them what my chances were to walk again,” he said. “They told me, basically, 65 percent if I save the leg and 99 percent if I amputate.

“It wasn’t that hard of a decision at that point.”

Like Araujo, Thran did everything he could to avoid amputation.

In June 2001, Thran received a call about possible drug activity near 37th and Montgomery streets. Though a number of suspects fled the scene on his arrival, an altercation broke out with one. During the fight, Thran said, his knee was “crashed in over and over.”

Multiple surgeries couldn’t fix Thran’s knee and amputation became his only option.

Even the most advanced prosthetics of their time left Thran wanting more. The former police officer had always been active and enjoyed riding motorcycles – things he found difficult with the prosthetics.

“I asked Hanger if there was something more user-friendly,” he said. “Battery life and weather are big issues with (the microprocessor knees). So, I moved to more mechanical ones – until the Genium came around.”

‘A big difference’

On a recent trip to see his daughter, Sarah, a University of Georgia student, Thran said he really discovered the difference between earlier prosthetics and the Genium.

“I was used to the mechanical leg,” he said. “Up there, there are hills all over the place. We walked all around downtown Atlanta and did the aquarium – everything was up and down, hills and steps – if it wasn’t for (the Genium) it would have been a horrible weekend. Instead, I didn’t even have to think about it.”

For him, the major advantages are the battery life – up to five days, as opposed to about a day in earlier microprocessor models – and it’s water resistance.

“I can do these things I haven’t been able to do since I lost my leg,” Thran said. “Walking in uneven dirt, down hills, between bushes. I don’t have to worry if it starts raining and I’m on my motorcycle – I just do what I have to do.”

And with the touch of a button on a Bluetooth remote, he added, the Genium can change modes to optimize it for exercising, walking, riding his motorcycle, or riding a bicycle.

Although the knee isn’t completely perfect – Thran’s prosthetic had to be reset after he got too close to an MRI machine – Miller and his two patients agree that it’s the best prosthetic they’ve seen.

“It’s something completely different,” Miller said. “The users pick up a lot of confidence because of what it does and how sturdy it is. It’s a big difference from what we’ve seen.”

Falling became a normal part of getting used to his past prosthetics, Araujo said. Not so with the Genium.

“With other knees they’ll give out on you,” Araujo said. “So far, I haven’t fallen on this one – not yet, at least.”

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