Auburn vet among first to get new prosthetic

Angela Mapes Turner | The Journal Gazette
Photos by Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette

Pedersen demonstrates his new PowerFoot BiOM prosthetic to Auburn Mayor Norm Yoder and Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry.



Iraq war veteran Matt Pedersen of Auburn shows his new PowerFoot prosthetic Thursday at SRT Prosthetics and Orthotics.

Matt Pedersen tugs up the bottom hem of his shorts and flexes his right foot. There’s nothing remarkable about this, except it’s not actually his foot – it’s a bionic replacement.

“I’ve been waiting a long time for something like this,” he said.

The Auburn resident is part of a small group, mostly veterans, to receive a new lower-leg system called PowerFoot BiOM, a prosthetic that replicates the action of the foot, calf and ankle muscles to produce as much energy as a human lower leg.

Two months ago, Pedersen became the third Hoosier veteran to receive one, and the first from northeast Indiana, according to SRT Prosthetics and Orthotics, the local company that fitted him with the leg.

Pedersen, 27, still has the lean bearing of the infantryman he once was. His tattooed arms are wiry and strong. On his shirt, he wears a small Purple Heart pin; his PowerFoot extends from a socket covered in American-flag print fabric.

The Angola High School graduate joined the Army in 2003, and after training in Korea and Kuwait, he arrived in Ramadi, Iraq, in September 2004, during some of the most intense battles of the Iraq War.

Every day, his unit came under fire, Pedersen said. He’d barely been there two months when a man dressed in an Iraqi police uniform jumped in a car packed with white phosphorus explosives and drove it straight at the 7-ton Marine vehicle in which Pedersen was a passenger.

Pedersen doesn’t know the name of his driver, a Marine who turned the vehicle hard so the driver’s side took most of the impact, but he believes that Marine saved their lives that day. Several lost limbs, including the Marine driver, but only the suicide bomber died.

Pedersen’s legs were swollen to three or four times their normal size. He had skin grafts to repair burns and several shrapnel wounds. His right foot was so badly injured one doctor told him he could fit an entire fist in one of the wounds.

He doesn’t remember much of the three days he spent in an intensive care unit in Germany, the two blood transfusions, or those first days at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, but he does remember that doctor’s description of the wound, and how it contributed to his consent to a below-the-knee amputation.

“I didn’t think it was feasible to try to save something that wasn’t there,” Pedersen said.

What followed was a long process of healing, of learning how to stand – Pedersen remarks he could probably balance on his one foot for hours – and eventually to walk.

Those around him at Walter Reed, including a double-amputee who still does airplane jumps, inspired him.

“I use those stories to motivate me,” Pedersen said. “I always felt that I was lucky not to be in some of those other people’s positions.”

Pedersen returned to Indiana in May 2006, fitted with an Army-provided prosthesis, able to walk but unsure what his post-amputation life would be like.

He has three pieces of shrapnel still in his back that cause chronic pain. Once an athlete—in the infantry, he ran about 16 miles each week—he had a fear of people judging him, he said.

“I really didn’t understand how difficult it could be to have a disability and have it out there for people to see,” he said.

He’s done his best to adjust. Four years ago, he met his wife, Desiree, and a year later, the two married. Desiree has three children from a previous relationship, and together the couple have a 6-month-old baby.

He works now at Frontier Communications in Fort Wayne. With four children at home—home oldest is 10–Pedersen has no choice but to stay active.

On a recent morning, Pedersen sat at a conference table with SRT Prosthetics and Orthotics staff. He described how the two months he’s had with his new foot have changed his life.

He had been taking three-hour naps during the day. The bionic foot saves his body so much energy that Pedersen said he now doesn’t need the nap and doesn’t get tired at work.

“I don’t feel like I’m dragging,” he said.

The staff at SRT is proud, and justifiably so. The company, which also has locations in Anderson and Kokomo and Defiance and Bryan, Ohio, is one of only five in the U.S. to be granted access to the product. The rest of the prostheses goes to government agencies, such as veterans hospitals.

In addition to Pedersen, SRT has fitted another local man, the victim of an industrial accident, with a PowerFoot.

Created by an MIT scientist, it’s in limited production, although iWalk, which produces it, says commercialization is under way.

Because the bionic foot saves its user energy, the wearer has more energy to expend exercising. In clinical trials, amputees fitted with the foot experience an average weight loss of 10 pounds, SRT owner Sam Santa-Rita said.

Of Medicare patients who have an amputation, 90 percent have a second amputation within five years, Santa-Rita said. A prosthetic that encourages a more active patient could postpone or eliminate the need for a second amputation, which has the potential to save government dollars. In addition to helping disabled vets, that’s another reason development of the product was supported by grants from the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs.

“This is going to be an industry standard in 10 years,” Santa-Rita said.

On a recent morning, SRT invited Auburn Mayor Norm Yoder and Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry to the company’s Fort Wayne office to meet Pedersen and watch a demonstration of the foot. They listened to the story of the suicide bombing that led to his amputation and quizzed Pedersen about how the foot works.

And does it dazzle: Shawn Brown, chief operating officer of SRT, held up his smartphone, upon which he’s downloaded an application that allows him to adjust the performance of Pedersen’s bionic foot. With a light touch of the screen, Brown can adjust the foot’s stiffness, power and timing, a process that on other prostheses can take hours to do manually.

It has some drawbacks, and anyone who has ever used a smartphone can probably guess the biggest: battery life. The lithium-ion battery needs frequent recharging, and when Pedersen first began wearing the foot, his battery would die halfway through his work day.

He has three batteries he keeps in rotation, and he removes the battery when he’s not wearing the foot, helping the unit maintain a charge longer.

Pedersen calls it a small inconvenience in the grand scheme of things he can do. Pedersen’s gait is straighter and more natural. Descending a flight of stairs used to take five minutes; now, it’s much easier, and future versions of the PowerFoot likely will have improved technology specifically geared for descending stairs, SRT staff said.

A few weeks ago, Pedersen even took a bike ride.