Boulder prosthetics designer helps amputees thrive
August 22, 2009
BOULDER, Colo. – Bob Radocy screws a black plastic hook into his prosthetic arm and delivers a ferocious roundhouse punch to the wall.
“See how it absorbs the blow? That didn’t even hurt,” he says.
Just another round of product testing for the Boulder prosthetic designer, whose expanding arsenal of one-of-a-kind tools enables amputees to pursue their passions.
Name a sport, and Radocy has designed a prosthetic attachment that empowers the armless or legless athlete to not just play, but thrive. Martial arts, cycling, weightlifting, surfing, skiing, swimming, shooting, climbing, golfing, baseball, basketball and hockey are a dozen of the two-handed sports that Radocy has returned to amputees.
“Our greatest excitement in the last couple years is really being able to get into design that duplicates body mechanics. Now people with physical challenges can really meet their optimum level of performance,” Radocy says. “People say, ‘What can’t you do?’ And I tell them there haven’t been many instances where we haven’t been able to help solve a person’s challenges.”
Most of the prosthetics Radocy manufactures at his TRS Inc. laboratory in Boulder are arms and hands. Before focusing on sporting equipment, Radocy designed rubberized hands with simple lever pinchers, mainly for children.
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But the surge of U.S. soldiers returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with upper limbs missing has hastened the push to develop more sports-centric prosthetics, inspiring Radocy and his six-employee, 30-year-old TRS Inc. to forge even more innovative prosthetic designs.
With the U.S. government supporting new-school rehabilitation programs that ferry injured soldiers into self-confidence-building pursuits like rock climbing, kayaking and skiing, the demand for adaptive prosthetics has never been stronger.
“There is a new population of people who are young and aggressive guys and who are demanding really progressive designs in prosthetics,” Radocy says. “It’s gotten me excited about developing an opportunity for them.”
The flexible polyurethane gadgetry that evolves at TRS leads the world in sports and recreation prosthetic attachments. It’s a niche, but growing, industry for amputees who refuse to abandon their active lifestyles because of a missing limb.
“People today are expecting more of themselves, and they are demanding more from their prosthetics. It’s that simple,” says Radocy, who lost his left arm below the elbow in a 1971 car accident. “Years ago, people had to quit or do everything one-handed.”
When Aron Ralston first met Radocy, he was struck by an overwhelming notion: “I am going to be able to climb better than I ever have before.”
It was late 2003, only a few months after Ralston amputated his own right arm with a dull knife after spending five days trapped by a dislodged boulder in a remote canyon near Moab.
Just seeing the possibilities in Radocy’s customized prosthetics motivated Ralston to focus hard on his physical rehabilitation. Today, thanks in part to mountaineering-specific prosthetics Radocy designed with a team of climbers, including Ralston, the 33-year-old Coloradan is an internationally renowned alpinist who has skied from the 20,320-foot summit of Alaska’s Denali and solo climbed all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks in winter.
“Within a year, I was actually climbing better than I ever have before. Climbing, rafting, skiing; in all of those I have certainly taken myself to higher levels,” says Ralston, whose raft-rowing trip down the Grand Canyon last April may have been a first for an amputee. “Being able to get out there and have the equipment that allows you to get out there is very important to recovery.”
Radocy, whose soothing voice and helmet-like afro conjure memories of murmuring television painter Bob Ross, is hardly the hunched-over scientist, perpetually tinkering in his lab.
Buff and fit – he lifts weights and works out daily – 60-year-old Radocy tests each of his uniquely adaptive but not high-tech prosthetics. He is an accomplished archer, proven by his office wall, filled with mounted exotic game.
He swims with the “living hinge” swim hand that folds upon itself when pulled backward through water and ably swings the “Pinch Hitter” bat-grasping prosthetic and “Power Play” hockey stick grabber.
There are no robotics or complicated machinery in his engineering. He uses materials, angles and design to mimic sporting movement in creations that may look nothing like a hand but work just like one.
With degrees in engineering, biological sciences and physical education, Radocy applies the tried-and-true method of invention to all his prosthetic creations: “We build it, try it and throw it away. Then we try something else, and over a period of time, we get it right.”
The typical design process involves lengthy interviews and plenty of input from amputees. It’s a symbiotic relationship between designer and amputee from which both sides draw inspiration. Most every tool is created by addressing a specific athlete’s challenge. Radocy simply engineers around the challenge.
“He is the master problem solver,” says Ronnie Dickson, a 22-year-old who is studying prosthetics design at Florida’s St. Petersburg College and uses a cutting-edge left leg prosthetic with a computerized knee. “I can only hope to be that good.”
Malcolm Daly, who helps lead Paradox Sports, a group that provides outdoor-sports opportunities to the disabled community, has seen Radocy’s sports attachments open doors for amputees who wondered whether they would ever get back outside and play.
“Like Paradox, Bob is helping to provide that inspiration component,” says Daly, who lost his leg in a 1999 climbing accident and designed a climbing-specific prosthetic foot Radocy manufactures. “Just being out there doing these sports and doing them at a level we can be proud of is really raising people’s awareness of what we can do. Bob is providing a great service to the amputee world.”