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Assistive technology gives wounded warriors second chances

Matthew Pirrello, a sophomore at Ohio University and Air Force ROTC cadet, poses for a photo after finishing wheelchair basketball practice May 12, 2011 at the United States Air Force Academy. Cadet Pirrello will be competing in swimming, sitting volleyball and wheelchair basketball at the 2011 Warrior Games in Colorado Springs. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Airman 1st Class Jessica Hines)

Matthew Pirrello, a sophomore at Ohio University and Air Force ROTC cadet, poses for a photo after finishing wheelchair basketball practice May 12, 2011 at the United States Air Force Academy. Cadet Pirrello will be competing in swimming, sitting volleyball and wheelchair basketball at the 2011 Warrior Games in Colorado Springs. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Airman 1st Class Jessica Hines)

by Airman 1st class Jessica Hines

21st Space Wing Public Affairs

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo.  — Despite restricted abilities, this year’s athletes participating in the 2011 Warrior Games here will boast strength, speed, stamina and a whole lot of will power as they strive to reach higher and celebrate each other the best way they know how, through the power of sport.

Because of the world of assistive technology, the term used to include technology which helps rehabilitate, adapt and improve quality of life for people with disabilities, many have been introduced or re-introduced to sports they otherwise would not have approached before.

After surviving injuries sustained from a free fall jump, 19-year-old Matthew Pirrello, a sophomore at Ohio University and Air Force ROTC cadet, became an amputee above his right knee. The challenges of adapting to a prosthetic leg, designed specifically for him, have not kept this young cadet from pursing his goals. New designs in prosthesis have given above-the-knee amputees the ability to face small obstacles many take for granted.

There was a time when above-the-knee amputees couldn’t go down steps foot over foot, but with the new developments in prosthetics, the ability to move more easily is becoming a reality, Cadet Pirrello said.

This advancement is due to a cylinder within the prosthetic leg, which compresses to adjust for weight distribution and allows for more fluid movement. This means going down a step is smoother, whereas before a person with a prosthetic leg had to take one step at a time, now they can go from step to step and the prosthetic leg will bend and move with the person’s own movement.

Over time the microprocessor within the prosthetic leg will learn and adjust to Cadet Pirrello’s movement as it learns his body and weight distribution, and he, in turn, learns to move with it, making even greater adjustments in the future.

“When you’re walking and it’s bent, if you put pressure on it, it will sense you’re putting all this weight on it and will stiffen up, it’s not just going to give out on you. It’s the most secure leg, I’ve never fallen with it” said Cade Pirrello.

Another advanced feature is the ability to change the modes of the prosthetic leg.

“If you bounce on the toe three times, it’ll vibrate and changes modes to free swing. So when you’re riding a bike and it’s in free swing mode, there’s no compression on the cylinder and you can bring the peddle back up on the bike without it stiffening up,” said Cadet Pirrello.

“You can change modes like that to go ride a bike, or on the rowing machine at the gym or on the stationary bike… stuff like that you don’t think of,” he added.

For Tech. Sgt. Israel Del Toro, who became the first 100 percent disabled Airman to re-enlist in the Air Force, the chance to participate in this year’s cycling competition was made easier with the help of a custom recumbent bike build especially for him.

Restricted use to only his right hand made regular recumbent bikes difficult to navigate.

“(During) last year’s Warrior Games, I had to leave the bike in second gear because I couldn’t shift, going up and down hill was hard (because) of that,” said Sergeant Del Toro.

Only having the use of the gears and functons on the right side meant Sergeant Del Toro could only brake on one side as well, making it dangerous to stop suddenly at higher speeds.

“With this custom-built recumbent, I have all the functions on the right side and have total control over the bike,” said Sergeant Del Toro

Built for racing, the recumbent was made in Austin, Texas, and paid for by a local charity for military heroes.

“It’s a whole other world,” said Sergeant Tel Toro, “(and a) great work out too.”

The custom recumbent has given Sergeant Tel Toro more than the ability to compete in this year’s Warrior Games with a better edge. It also gave him the chance to spend time with his son.

“I can go riding with my boy, and that means a lot,” Sergeant Tel Toro said.

“He wants one (recumbent) of his own now,” he said laughingly.

This will be Sergeant Tel Toro’s first race with the new recumbent, and with the custom built features that give him the same competitive edge, he will unquestionably give the other riders a good race to the finish line.

“At each event I speak at, I end with a quote, ‘Many of you out there might think I’ve gotten a bad break, but I’m the luckiest man in the world to have worked with some the greatest men out there. I have a wife that is a pillar of strength, a son that is all my motivation, so yeah I might have gotten a bad break but I still have a lot to live for,” said Sergeant Tel Toro.

For more information about the Warrior Games visit: http://usparalympics.org/.

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