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SA Inventors Device for Leg Injuries (Pt. II) Takes Next Step to Help Civilians

SAN ANTONIO - by Randy Beamer, News 4 SA

Someday in the not-too-distant future, you may be getting some help with your leg or foot problems by wearing a revolutionary device invented here at Fort Sam Houston.

That's because the IDEO, a brace-like contraption created to help wounded warriors at the Center for the Intrepid, will soon be available in the civilian world and throughout the military and the VA system.

You can see our first story on the IDEO device by clicking here. This story is Part Two, lookings at the future of the IDEO as it becomes available to many more people.

BY RANDY BEAMER -- (San Antonio)

It's a deceptively-simple device. It looks just like most any other basic leg brace, but with a heel plate that fits right down into your shoe, much like an orthotic foot pad. 

But when you see the changes it has brought to soldiers going through physical rehabilitation at the Center for the Intrepid, you understand it is something very special.

Seeing it work is one  thing. But describing how it works, is a challenge. So bear with me.

First, IDEO stands for Intrepid Dynamic Exoskeletal Orthosis. And it's pronounced eye-DAY-oh.

In the simplest terms, it's a cross between a simple leg brace and the latest in high-tech, carbon-fiber, blade-like, prosthetic running legs

In techical, engineering-speak, as you step down and put weight on it, the IDEO offloads that energy and stores it, similar to a spring. Then when you push off the ground at the back end of your stride, some of that energy is directed back up to the rest of your body, giving you the power to walk, run or jump.

Ryan Blanck is the prosthetist (prosthetics expert) who invented it. "I can design a prosthesis that will let a patient run, but how can I take that prosthetic design and wrap it around a limb? That's what I really was trying to do."

And it worked. One IDEO at a time. Since Blanck created it -- for what he thought was the one and only patient who needed it back in 2009 its helped more than 400 service members avoid amputations, keep their injured leg, or in some cases legs, and get back to something like the normal lives they led before they were hurt.

Marine Cpl. Wesley Bigbie is one of those who considered having a leg taken off. Now he has an IDEO and both legs. "This is an option they get to keep their own leg and that is a miracle," he says.

Ryan is humbled by that kind of reaction and by seeing the dramatic change from the 'before' videos of patients limping and in pain, to the 'after' videos of them running, jumping, and often, smiling.

"To see this process, to work with these individuals, I will forever be grateful because it's changed me," Blanck says. It's made me a better prosthetist. It's made me a better person I think.

Johnny Owens designed the month-long training program, which they say is so important for a patient's success with the IDEO.

"Every war has something that comes out of it that's medical advancement. And you know, this wasn't tested. It wasn't researched we just, we were forced against the wall and decided we had to come up with something."

But until now, they've only been able to help service members and some veterans who come to the Center for the Intrepid.

"We get calls all the time for civilians," Blanck says.

The director for the Center for the Intrepid, Lt. Col. (Dr.) Donald Gajewski, says the job now is to expand the reach of the IDEO.

"Our job is to get it out to the rest of the military, get it out to the VA, get it out to the civilian world," Gajewski says. "Because currently we're the only people that can make it. So our patients, my colleagues up at Walter Reed are sending people to us, my colleagues at San Diego sending patients to us."

And now the IDEO is about to hit the next step in its development, both inside and outside the military.

"I'm going to be working with a company for a nationwide version of this," Ryan tells me. "And I'm training folks here before I leave, I'm training [people at] Walter Reed before I leave. And I think it's a natural progression. It was the toughest decision of my life."

It was tough because Blanck will soon leave the military (he's a civilian employee) and move his family out of San Antonio, away from the Center for the Intrepid, and back to his hometown of Seattle.

He's a partner with a company that -- in a surprsing twist -- is paying the military for the rights to his very own invention.

"It's interesting," says Dr. Gajewski. "The inventor waived his right to the patent, gave it to the military. That's the type of person he is."

Ryan smiles at the mention of it. "Even though I developed it, I'm involved with the purchasing of the very device that I developed, so that's how the patent works, yeah."

But his role in this next phase of the IDEO, in both the military and civilian worlds is crucial. Because right now only Ryan knows how to custom-tailor each IDEO. He takes into account a patient's specific injuries and strengths and then specially designs and tweaks everything, the carbon-fiber mold and struts, adjusting the thickness, stiffness, even the feel of it.

"Each one of them is like a fingerprint," he says. None of them are exactly the same.There's not an off-the-shelf IDEO."

Dr. Gajewski says "We've seen a lot of people make them, ones that look like them. But you put them on and they don't work. So I think Ryan's got the secret and certainly we're trying to get it out there to everybody."

That's even more important now, as they're discovering that the IDEO can help people with more kinds of leg problems than they first thought.

"The interesting thing is it was all just [originally] for lower leg blast trauma," says Johnny Owens. "And we are starting to see, you know, people with a gunshot to the head,  injuries to the hip, So these new diagnoses that are starting to open up is really awesome, too. To see other applications of it."

"And it's not rocket science," Blanck says. "I can train somebody on how to do this and will it be different? Yeah, but maybe different -- good.

But his patients will miss him.

ArmyStaff Sergeant Athena Knight gets teary-eyed when talking about Blanck.

"He brings such a great spirit. And I really do have to thank Ryan a lot because without this... It made a difference. It really made a difference to my life to my family."

And family is a big part of why Ryan's moving back home to Seattle.

"I think about my family. I have three kids. We have all our family in Seattle. We have an opportunity to get back there and thank my wife for being here the last five years. It was time to do that too. It's not all about me... so family's most important."

Blanck will be helping create what he calls a unique center in Seattle, with room for a training program, where he can create IDEOS and teach others the intricacies of his creation.  He tells me that he hopes within a few years, you'll be able to get a custom-made ideo through the help of a trained expert, at different centers all over the country.

    Check out other Beamer's World Stories by clicking here.

    For Beamer's facebook page click here. For his twitter, click here.

    Beamer and the News 4 SA Team.

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