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Meet the Engineer Who Got a Boston Marathon Bombing Survivor Dancing Again

March 25, 2014
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Meet the Engineer Who Got a Boston Marathon Bombing Survivor Dancing Again
Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for MedStar National Rehabilitation Network
Scientists can now design and create prosthetics that can essentially eliminate disability.

Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a professional ballroom dancer, suffered a devastating and potentially career-ending injury in the Boston Marathon bombing. Haslet-Davis and her husband, Adam Davis, a U.S. airman, were on the sidelines watching the marathon when the bomb went off. “We sat up and I said, ‘Wait, my foot hurts,’” Haslet-Davis recalled to ABC News a week after the tragedy. The blast from the bomb had torn off her left foot, and as a result, her leg needed to be amputated at mid-calf.

Despite the devastating loss, Haslet-Davis, a ballroom instructor at Boston’s Arthur Murray Studios, was determined to dance again. And last week, less than a year after the tragic bombing, she did.

During a TED2014 Talk by Hugh Herr, director of the Biomechatronics Group at the MIT Media Lab, Haslet-Davis was invited on stage, along with her dance partner Christian Lightner. She wore a short, white, flowing dress, but her best accessory was her new, state-of-the-art bionic limb designed and created especially for her by MIT researchers.

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Haslet-Davis and Lightner performed an intricate rumba to the tune of Enrique Iglesias’s “Ring My Bells.” She moved perfectly, unhindered by her prosthetic. And that was the point. Herr — a double-amputee himself — met Haslet-Davis at a Boston rehab hospital and immediately wanted to use his knowledge of prosthetics to build her a bionic limb. For 200 days, Herr’s team studied the dynamics of dance and tweaked the prosthetic so that it would move seamlessly during performance. ““Bionics are not only about making people stronger and faster,” he said. “Our expression, our humanity can be embedded into our electromechanics.”

Herr lost both of his legs after getting frostbite during a rock climbing accident in 1982, but even then, he didn’t view his body as broken. “I thought: Technology is broken. Technology is inadequate,” he said. “This simple but powerful idea was a call to arms to advance technology to the elimination of my own disability, and ultimately the disabilities of others.”

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Through his work at the Center for Extreme Bionics at the MIT Media Lab, Herr and his team have developed prosthetics that allowed him to return to rock climbing. He boasts that he’s even better at it now than he was before. They’ve focused on addressing three areas of improvement: mechanical, dynamic and electrical. They’ve reengineered how prosthetics attach to the body, how to make them “move like flesh and bone”, and how to connect them to the nervous system. The result has been the most innovative prosthetics out there. Now, Herr’s greatest challenge is getting his creations to the masses — and at an affordable cost.

“The basic levels of physiological function should be part of basic human rights,” Herr said. “It’s not well appreciated, but over half the world’s population suffers from some kind of cognitive, emotional, sensory or motor condition. Every person should have the right to live without disability, if they choose to.”

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