Niagara Foot News Articles and Features
Fancy footwork by Canadians brings smiles
to mine victims
By Steve Sandford
THE GLOBE AND MAIL
January 2, 2003
ARANYAPRATHET, THAILAND - The morning sun slowly
rises over lush paddy fields as a woman swings her hoe into the
red earth. Chua-buakam Sriprapai moves spryly, cutting through
the lettuce patch to gather food for breakfast. Mobility and endurance
are prerequisites for farming the rugged terrain along the Thai-Cambodian
border. For decades, land mines planted during Cambodia's civil
war have robbed the area's people of these. Ms. Chua-buakam lost
her right leg below the knee.
But that is changing, thanks to a Canadian
invention that has restored Ms. Chua-buakam's agility and her
ability to feed her
family. The Niagara Foot, a revolutionary new prosthesis, is helping
her and 14 other land-mine victims take steady steps toward regaining
self-worth and productivity. "I feel like I have a real leg
now," Ms. Chua-buakam said. "It is much more comfortable
and gives me more energy to spend with my family. My good hip is
less sore at the end of the day." Simple tasks, such as walking
to a nearby shop, can be painful for those with artificial limbs;
hauling a 20-kilogram sack of rice can be unbearable. But the Niagara
Foot's energy-return design helps relieve the fatigue and pain.
A clinical team from Queen's University
and a St. Catharines, Ont., prosthesis-maker, Niagara Prosthetics
and Orthopedics, is
in the border region completing tests on 15 land-mine victims aged
29 to 72. "We wanted to improve conditions by providing a
foot that would withstand rugged conditions, was affordable and
did not need to be replaced," designer Rob Gabourie said.
The Niagara Foot uses Dupont Delrin, a special polyacetyl plastic
that is unique in its combination of elasticity and toughness.
Researchers tested the foot at Queen's for three years before moving
from the cyclical fatigue laboratory to the Thai-Cambodia border,
a region with a distressingly high number of potential test subjects.
The area is one of the most heavily mined in the world because
of the Cambodian war, which began in the early 1970s and ended
only with the final collapse of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1990s.
Millions of land mines are still in the ground in Cambodia, and
the border area is no exception: Even the Thai army laid them to
prevent the conflict from spreading across the frontier.
Some amputees make do by fashioning a crude
homemade prosthesis, but many are fitted with a device known
as the solid ankle cushion
heel (SACH), commonly used for amputations above the knee. While
the SACH prosthesis is relatively cheap, a bonus for subsistence
farmers, Mr. Gabourie said the design also causes fatigue. "Most
SACH feet are not much more than rubber on a stick."
The Niagara Foot, however, with its inverted S-shaped heel design,
provides a spring action that gives a push to propel the wearer
forward when the foot contacts the ground.
Patients have reported less exhaustion and more comfort on the
opposite limb during testing, which has been partly funded by the
Department of National Defence's Canadian Centre for Mine Action
The biggest complaint about the Niagara Foot has been its space-age
design. Already stigmatized by the loss of a limb, some patients
were distressed by the added burden of a strange plastic prosthesis.
Researchers solved the problem by adding a life-like cover for
A larger concern is price. At $35, it is far more expensive than
SACH feet, which cost about $5. However, Mr. Gabourie pointed out,
SACH feet typically break and need to be replaced six to eight
times a year, a frailty that undermines the foot's usefulness.
"When someone breaks one of the other replacement feet,
they will usually keep it stored in the house and whittle a peg
to hop around with," rather than travel to Aranyaprathet for
a replacement, said Dave McCracken, a former Canadian military
engineer who is now a technical adviser for the Thailand Mine Action
Committee. "The Niagara Foot just keeps going and going."
Kamkem Thongdee, who lost his left leg after stepping on a land
mine in 1979 and has tried the Niagara Foot, believes it will be
eagerly adopted by other amputees.
"I had to make my first leg by myself. No one had help for
me," the 46-year-old rice farmer said, proudly holding up
a crude wooden device held together by chicken wire and rusty nails.
"With the new energy, I feel better.
My wife is happy now that I can work. But many other people have
the same problem. I
hope that some day they will also be able to use it."