YELM, WA (December 17, 2012) – Zac Vawter had read somewhere that the U.S. Department of Defense was pursuing development of a “smart limb” for upper extremities. The military also would begin research that would employ the same technology for a mechanical prosthesis.
He thought back to the article as he lay on the pre-op gurney before a surgeon removed Vawter’s lower right leg that had been injured in a motorcycle accident. He decided right then that he wanted to be part of the $8 million military study.
Vawter, a software engineer and self-described “geeky, techno kind of guy,” told the surgeon he wanted the physician to reroute the nerves so that he would be a candidate for the study. “The surgeon was really excited,” Vawter says.
That was three years ago. Since then, the member of Crossroads Covenant Church in Yelm, Washington, has traveled every several months to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago to work with the innovative design. In November, Vawter attracted international attention when he climbed 2,109 steps up the 103 floors of the Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) as part of the annual charity event “SkyRise Chicago” to raise money for the institute’s rehabilitation care and research.
Reporters from around the world were there and wanted to interview him before he and 3,000 other people attempted the ascent. “I was way more nervous about the media attention that I was about making it to the top,” Vawter says.
“Since Zac’s accident, he has continued to be an inspiration to his friends, family, church and community,” says Joshua Rogers, who also attends Crossroads. “This story shows his dedication to living life to the fullest and how quick he was to use his relatively new situation to better the lives of others.”
The climb was a test for the leg as much as Vawter, who is quick to caution that much work remains to be done – such a device is far from being used beyond research. “You don’t want to give false hope,” he says. “We need to provide the empirical evidence of how beneficial this will be.”
Vawter remembers the first time he used the leg, which reads signals from his thigh.
“It was phenomenal. I was sitting in a chair and I was kicking the ball back and forth with the therapist.”
He doesn’t have to consciously think about moving the leg with each step. “My brain still tells my nerves to do the same thing as it would if I have a leg,” Vawter says.
Vawter says the experience has led him into an even deeper sense of awe for God’s handiwork. The bionic leg, with all its intricate technology, still is only a crude facsimile of what God has created, and that “we are fearfully and wonderfully made,” he explains.
Vawter prepared for the climb by practicing on a small escalator in the gym at the institute. Researchers monitored the leg and made any necessary adjustments.
When Vawter returns home, he leaves the leg at the institute. “They make me leave it there,” he says, laughing.
He will return to Chicago in several months. “Being involved in the research is fun and interesting to me,” Vawter says. “I hope it moves the work forward.”