If The Leg Fits

Jamie Gribbin

“You can treat more people by teaching,” Dr. Laurence Meyer, the Chief of Research at the Salt Lake City, V.A. Hospital, told me as we sat down in his office to discuss the new clinical testing for a new type of prosthetic implanted into veteran soldiers. The inspired music major at the University of San Diego ended up finalizing his college career with a Biochemistry degree.

Planning on going into graduate school for his biochemistry major, “I ended up not liking the bio-chem group quite as much,” so he applied for medical school. He was, unfortunately, not accepted. “So, I lateraled over and got my Ph.D. in Genetics,” at UC Davis, “and then went back and went to medical school. So that was after I had been working for four years, and went back for five years for my Ph.D.”

His primary focus was on genetic research. This led Dr. Meyer to Salt Lake City, Utah, where he practiced internal medicine, clinical genetics, and melanoma research, along with other dermatology research (specifically into geriatrics “because old people get skin cancer”) for approximately eleven years.

“In some way, I’ve always been doing medical genomics,” says Dr. Meyer. Research allows us to make great findings and “treat more people, have fewer side effects, have therapies that work on a higher percentage of people, [and] address the people who don’t have a therapy for them.” Dr. Meyer claims that research allows more benefits to the people because it furthers medical practices, while at the same time moving simultaneously along with ever-changing medical advances. Dr. Meyer also says that, “you know, it’s fun!”

“When I came here eleven-ish years ago, almost twelve years ago now, there was an on-going bone and joint research lab, and they were largely researching the attachment of artificial joints to existing bone,” Dr. Meyer said.

At the time, this was a fairly new idea for medicinal practices. Dr. Meyer estimates around eight to ten years ago “a guy in Sweden started doing some of these and was getting initially horrible infections . . . and then it was getting better, but not good . . . and another group in Germany started doing research on it too.”

These new prosthetic are called Percutaneous Osseointegrated Prosthetics, or POPs. Unlike the socket-fit prosthetic limbs, the POPs are implanted into the remaining femur bone, thus allowing the patient to receive more feeling within the new leg and less chance of tissue deterioration. This prosthesis implantation requires two surgeries, first to place the fixture into the femoral bone, and then to install the attachment for the artificial leg/limb.

Dr. Meyer says that within the next year or two, the goal is to have around ten veterans implanted with a new prosthetic leg. Depending on those results, he is hoping to have spread the clinical testing to other hospitals for more access to the public. He says that there is more than just spreading the medicine and knowledge, but also teaching and re-teaching surgeons on how to properly insert the new attachment.

Dr. Meyer reminds me how rewarding medicine can be, and how quickly ideas can come to life and change people’s lives. “You see somebody in the clinic, you talk to them, and you help them, and that happens every once in a while, not as often as you’d like, but it does happen – but you get this very immediate gratification.”

“We started doing research on it almost ten years ago. So I have a very small part of this,” Dr. Meyer states. “There are orthopedists, and researchers in orthopedics, biomedical engineers, microbiologists, dermatologists, physiologists, P.M.R. physicians, rehab specialists, material specialists, and probably people from other domains,” who have all helped Dr. Meyer and his personal team of researchers to help begin the clinical testing for veterans with upper leg amputations.

He says what is really amazing is watching these two veterans with the new leg implantation start walking. “You can see them tear up as they take their first steps with their new leg.”

Dr. Meyer says, “A mere bump or a little nudge, and the veterans are able to feel their new leg move.” It’s truly amazing what medicine can do; all it takes is that one step forward.

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