The excerpt below is from the summer issue of Brigham Health magazine.
In 1982, at 17 years old, Hugh Herr was a fearless and well-known rock climber when a blizzard trapped him for four days on Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Hypothermic and hours from death, he was rescued and helicoptered to a nearby hospitawl where doctors tried to save his severely frostbitten legs—but ultimately, needed to amputate both legs below the knee.
Eager to return to climbing, Herr tried the prosthetic limbs available at the time, but was unimpressed. He focused his attention, and eventually his career, on engineering and testing better-performing prosthetic devices, with the goal of developing models that would behave like natural limbs.
While Herr explored the possibilities of prosthetic devices as director of the Biomechatronics Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, another expert, plastic surgeon Matthew J. Carty, MD, was exploring possibilities for limb transplants at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH). Carty envisioned a leg transplant surgery that maintains essential nerve connections between the new leg and the brain. He wondered how a transplanted leg would perform compared with the best prosthetic devices.
“During a standard amputation procedure, the nerve signals that coordinate between the brain and limb are cut off, making it nearly impossible for an amputee using a prosthesis to walk on uneven ground or balance on one leg,” explains Carty, director of the Lower Extremity Transplant Program at BWH and Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital.
When Herr and Carty learned of each other’s efforts, their brainstorming led to a new idea: to redesign amputation surgery and develop a prosthesis that could be controlled by the brain.
Read the full story and more from the summer issue of Brigham Health magazine here.