Oscar Pistorius didn’t win a medal in the just-concluded Olympic Games. Not a gold, not a silver, not a bronze. In fact, he finished last in his semifinal heat of the 400-meter run (I think they call it the 400-meter dash, although I can’t fathom any race that requires one full lap around the track being called a dash), and his South African relay team finished next-to-last in the finals of that event.
But the 25-year-old Pistorius leaves quite a legacy behind in London, and not just because he became the first double-amputee athlete to compete against normal, able-bodied athletes in an Olympics. For me, that legacy is far more than the fleeting notoriety that would come even had he stood atop the medals stand.
The lasting picture for me is of Pistorius perched atop a pair of carbon-fiber legs, or blades, and it is not so much a picture of him running on a world stage — it is more what those blades represent, and that is yet another triumph of medical engineering.
In an age where heart transplants – once the “ooh, aah” stuff of front-page headlines – are so commonplace that we read of them only when there is a celebrity recipient, seeing someone who lost both lower legs to amputation at 11 months of age be very competitive against able-bodied rivals is just short of amazing.
And the only reason it isn’t fully amazing is that I have spent nearly 20 years reporting on developments in medicine that I would have considered nigh on impossible back when I was a young reporter who had occasion to interview such medical luminaries as polio vaccine developer Dr. Jonas Salk and heart transplant pioneer Dr. Christiaan Barnard.
Pistorius, dubbed the “Blade Runner” by the oh-so-clever folks in the sporting media, is the face – or rather, the feet – of a revolution in prosthetics that brings new hope, new life for thousands of persons who now are able to receive replacement limbs thanks to the efforts of medical innovators. Those researchers have focused their energies on improving the quality of life for persons who have lost limbs to birth defects, accidents or traumatic wounds suffered on the battlegrounds of Afghanistan, Iran and other war zones worldwide.
What they have accomplished, especially over the past decade or so, was exemplified by Pistorius dashing around the Olympic Stadium track, with hundreds of millions of eyes on him via worldwide television, watching with presumed wonderment at how he was able to make it all seem so very normal.
I am exposed in a small way to the world of prosthetics and even though that exposure is slight, I nonetheless am amazed by it. I wear custom-made diabetic shoes, and so am fitted for a new pair annually at a local orthotics/prosthetics company. While going for the fitting and subsequent delivery of each new pair, I often encounter in the waiting room wearers of various types of lower-limb prosthetics. In fact, the tech who has fitted me for shoes over the past several years is himself the wearer of a prosthetic lower leg and foot, and I say with considerable admiration that he moves around the fitting room infinitely more spryly than I do.
He clearly demonstrates to me that in the world of prosthetics, the watchword seems to be, to borrow the 2008 Obama campaign slogan, “Yes we can.” Or maybe Nike’s “Just do it” mantra.
The U.S. Paralympics team’s lead prosthetist, Francois Vanderwatt, talked with USA Today about what the Pistorius breakthrough means in the world of the physically challenged. “What this does for disabled people all over the world is it challenges their minds to start thinking about what is possible and not what’s not possible.”
And that “mind over matter” mentality exists in no small measure thanks to the fact that medical innovators took the same kind of approach. Where some may have seen impossibility, they saw opportunity. Where some saw a life of despair for those having suffered such traumatic injuries, they saw ways to make hopes a reality.
Hats off to them, and I join in with the heartfelt thanks that are uttered every day by those who are able to enjoy pretty much normal lives thanks to the marvelous products that have been developed by these innovators.
(Jim Stommen, retired executive editor of Medical Device Daily, is a freelance writer focusing on healthcare issues.)