Making prosthetics blends art with science

Wednesday, May 22, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
Tracy Ell crafts prosthetics at Mid-Mo Orthotics and Prosthetics. For Ell, who has always loved building and sculpting, the profession is the perfect blend of science and art.

COLUMBIA — For Tracy Ell, owner of Mid-Missouri Orthotics and Prosthetics, making artificial limbs for patients is the perfect melding of art and science.

From his workbench computer, Ell can beam programming instructions wirelessly via Bluetooth to a computerized knee joint in a carbon fiber leg. The bionic limb, in return, sends information about weight, speed and location of the knee joint back to the computer 50 times per second.

The space-age technology reveals just how far prosthetics have come in the past 500 years.

On another workbench nearby sits a replica of a hand made for a German knight in 1480. Metalsmiths fashioned a rudimentary silver and bronze-colored hand and gauntlet from steel for the 15th century warrior, who lost the limb valiantly in battle or in a fight with a farm hand, depending on which version of the story you believe.

Ell initially came to prosthetics through art, before finishing his master's degree at the Northwestern University Prosthetics-Orthotics Center.

“People in the field generally come from two schools of thought,” Ell said. “There are people (who) want to create and make things. And, there are people who want to help others. Personally, I was a creator before I was a helper.”

“I used to sculpt and build and make things," he said. "I studied fine art, then switched to biology, then to pre-med and then to prosthetics.”

And now, his work combines both fields. Any given day, he might be found calibrating sensitive electronic actuators — capable of moving a bionic finger a fraction of an inch — or using a bending iron to twist a quarter-inch thick piece of stainless steel into just the right shape for a leg brace.

“The science usually wins out," he said. "We do a lot with computers and microprocessors, but the craft side of things allows me to perfectly tailor each prosthetic to each individual.”

About 85 percent of prosthetic users lost a limb from disease or vascular problems, such as complications from smoking or diabetes, Ell said. Another 10 percent to 12 percent are the result of trauma of some sort, and the rest are the result of congenital defects.

Ell said being a part of a team of surgeons, rehabilitation physicians, social workers and occupational therapists who restore some quality of life to people who have lost their mobility or independence in some way is fulfilling work.

But working with children, helping them reach “normal” milestones, gives him the most pleasure.

“Like this 6-year-old girl who was missing both legs below the knee,” he said. “When her mom calls and says she rode a bike for the first time and feels like a normal kid … that’s a good day at work.”

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