Donated Prosthetic Limbs Get a Second Life

Outlawed in the United States, repurposed artificial limbs welcomed overseas.

March 12, 2014, 2:49 PM

March 12, 2014— -- Peter Rosenberger’s garage was piled high with body parts for six years. Stacks of legs littered the floor, arms were draped across desks and boxes of hands sat on a shelf.

“It was a freak show,” Rosenberger recalled. “A freak show with a purpose.”

Rosenberger, along with his wife, Gracie, has run Standing With Hope since 2002. The nonprofit organization gives prosthetic limbs a second life after a first owner has outgrown them or died.

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Gracie, 47, herself is a double amputee. She had a car accident 30 years ago when she was 17 and after nearly 80 surgeries, the doctors could no longer save her legs. The Nashville, Tenn., couple was inspired to start the organization during one of Gracie’s many hospital stays, after watching a documentary on Princess Diana’s work with landmine victims.

Any part of a prosthetic that touches the skin, particularly the socket that fits into the amputated joint and the sock liner that covers the remaining limb, cannot be reused in this country, according to U.S. law. The majority of unwanted artificial limbs are discarded. Many wind up in landfills or being repurposed as lamps or planters, Rosenberg said.

In 2011, the Rosenbergers moved their main operation out of their garage and to the Metro Davidson Detention Facility in Nashville. Now half a dozen inmates disassemble and ship about 500 limbs a year to Ghana. There, local technicians trained by the organization reassemble the components to create a custom fit them for waiting patients, for free.

“We chose Ghana because we needed to find a place with little civil unrest and a stable government,” Rosenberger, 50, said. “Once you fit someone with a prosthetic, they are a patient for life.”

Standing with Hope is just one of several charities that focus on recycling whole prosthetic limbs and prosthetic parts for use in developing countries. Limbs for Life director Lucy Fraser in Oklahoma City, Okla., said her organization sends 500 to 700 limbs a year overseas, mainly to poor South American and African countries. As she pointed out, an upper-extremity prosthetic can run upwards of $4,000 and a prosthetic leg, more than $8,000. In many parts of the world, that’s unaffordable.

“The only way those in need have a chance of getting one is if one is donated,” she said.

Fraser said the majority of limbs come from family members who want some part of their loved one to have a second life. Others come from prosthetic companies like Next Step Bionics that pack up unused and reclaimed prosthetic limbs and parts once a year for donation.

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Most are for the lower extremities because that’s the most common amputation site. Her organization accepts all limbs for donation but focuses on prosthetic legs with simple designs, few moving parts and no sophisticated computerized robotics.

“Many countries don’t have the infrastructure or expertise to maintain anything too complicated, so we often take parts from the computerized models and send them for reuse by American companies,” she said.

Rosenberger said that Standing With Hope’s job doesn’t stop once the prosthetic finds a new owner. They do constant follow up with both the patients and caregivers. Recently, they’ve been able to set up teleconferences for doctors here in the United States to check up on their patients in Africa. And when his son Greyson, now 22-years-old, was a middle schooler, he created a realistic prosthetic leg cover out of used bubble wrap and packing tape.

Despite growing the charity and moving his operation, Rosenberger said, he still keeps a basket of feet in his office.

“You never know when you’re going to need a left foot or a right foot,” he said. “I like to stay footloose, so to speak.”

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