Condition: Below-elbow Arm AmputationSolution: Below-elbow Arm Prosthesis
By now, many people are familiar with Aron Ralston’s harrowing story. In April 2003, the young hiker was executing routine moves in a rock canyon in Utah when he accidentally dislodged an 800-pound boulder. As the giant rock began to fall toward him, he placed his hands over his head to deflect the blow. That move, however, caused the rock to rest against his right hand in an inescapable handshake. After five days of trying desperately to free his hand, he finally resolved to remove the hand himself. Severely dehydrated, hungry, and moving in and out of coherent thinking, Ralston used the mechanical leverage of the rock to snap the radius and ulna bones just above his wrist, then cut the remaining soft tissues with a dull knife from his backpack to gain his freedom. With his arm wrapped in a makeshift tourniquet, Ralston hiked seven miles in the desert and rappelled down a 60-foot cliff using only his good arm to feed the rope. Ralston’s trek finally ended with a trip to the hospital in a search and rescue helicopter. He recounted the incident in a bestselling book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, and collaborated on the Academy Award– nominated film adaptation, 127 Hours, which was released in 2010.
Today, Ralston, 35, continues to seek adventure in the outdoors and has become a power user of advanced prosthetic devices: He has a claw attachment for belaying ropes, a custom-made mountaineering adze and ice pick for climbing, and even a specialized tool for strumming the guitar for his wife and two-year-old son, Leo. Ralston’s prosthetist, Hanger Clinic’s upper-extremity national specialist Troy Farnsworth, has worked with Ralston since he was first released from the hospital, and frequently gets challenged to come up with innovative technology for the mountaineer. When Ralston asked for help keeping his prosthesis from freezing while climbing the face of an ice waterfall (in temperatures of 40 degrees below zero), Farnsworth gamely responded with a battery-powered warming system embedded beneath a carbon-fiber shell. For all anyone knows, it is a solution that could one day help others. “I love patients like Aron who push you to make it better for everyone,” says Farnsworth.Just ten months after his accident, Ralston continued with a highly demanding climbing goal he had started before he lost his arm: summiting Colorado’s “14ers”—mountains over 14,000 feet high. Before the accident, Ralston had climbed 45 of the mountains. Over the next two years, he finished off the rest, solo and in winter, earning the record for the only person ever to do so.Despite his ambitious recent mountaineering efforts—including climbs of Denali and Mt. Kilimanjaro—Ralston says his current outdoor plans only involve family. “My goal this summer is to climb a Colorado 14er with Leo in the backpack,” he says. “The big challenge there will be attending to his needs. Going up he’ll probably be asleep, but going down he gets bounced around and is not happy. Fourteeners look out!” With a few years’ distance from his recovery, Ralston says he feels ambivalent about his focus on mountain climbing during the early parts of his recovery. What brought him true happiness later was more of an obstacle when he was laid up in bed. “At the time, my ego was really wrapped up in climbing at a high level,” he says. “It’s partly why I was depressed during the recovery stage.“In some ways, for me, the recovery was worse than the crisis. The crisis was only one aspect of my experience, as it is for a lot people who go through a massive transformation. I remember sleeping in my parents’ living room, and I’d look over to see bottles of pain pills. I thought, This isn’t the life that I fought for. I hiked seven miles out of a canyon, and now I can’t even walk seven feet to the bathroom.” Ralston eventually found solace in walks near the hospital with his sister and visits with his parents. “Family is what you’re going to find comfort in during the aftermath,” he says. “You don’t want to just get through it, but be in a position where you’re flourishing. My family encouraged me to take short walks, then eventually to get back into spending time with my friends, going to concerts, and becoming more active to where I was climbing 14ers again.”Ralston says he often thinks about the importance of seeking out inspiration. So what inspires him these days? “I love spending time with friends in the outdoors,” he says. “I love spending time with my son, going on hikes or just playing. He’s discovered how he can make me laugh by tickling me. It’s a delight.”
Living in Colorado, Aron is a true outdoorsman in every sense of the word. Since the 2003 accident, he has become the first person to solo climb during the winter, all 59 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks. Also, he recently reached the summit of 23,000-foot Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, South America’s highest mountain.
In 2008, Aron's Ojos del Salado and Monte Pissis in Argentina, solo climbed Denali (pictured below) and skied from the 20,320 summit. In 2009, he led an expedition with friends on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
When Aron’s not climbing mountains, he travels the country as an inspirational speaker, sharing his incredible survival story and message.“My advice to fellow Hanger Clinic patients is to believe and imagine. If you are truly motivated to experience your goal, whatever it is, you must first seek your inspiration. Perhaps it comes from your imagination, from seeing someone else living, or even in hearing or reading a story. Then you must believe in it and apply yourself. To believe and to imagine, they evolve together.”
Aron is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University where he studied mechanical engineering and French. Originally from Indiana, Aron's love of the mountains drew him to Colorado and he lives there today to be close to his family. Aron was married in 2009, he and wife, Jessica, welcomed their first child, Leo, to the family in February 2010.
Troy Farnswoth, CP, FAAOP, Vice President of Hanger Clinic’s Extremity Prosthetic Program, worked closely with Aron to create a socket and harness for his prosthetic arm, which was specifically designed to handle the increased forces of supporting his body weight while hanging and swinging. His arm is constructed from carbon and Kevlar then reinforced with gel patches to absorb high impact and load. He also wears a gel liner that aides in comfort. The entire arm is covered with “sticky rubber”, the same material that is on the bottom of climbing shoes, to give his forearm grip with rocks, etc.