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Walking tall

Bomb survivor's new leg perfect fit

New Hampshire Union Leader

August 31. 2013 11:33PM
Boston Marathon bombing victim Heather Abbott watches carefully as Matthew Albuquerque, president of Next Step Bionics and Prosthetics, examines the two prosthetic covers that Abbott has been getting used to -- one for everyday use, and a waterproof version. The four-inch, high-heel shoe in the foreground was used to shape a mold for her newest and most lifelike cover. (DAVE SOLOMON/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER - After she lost a leg in the Boston Marathon bombing, Heather Abbott thought she'd never wear high heels again, even though her mobility was partially restored thanks to a prosthetic leg from Next Step Bionics and Prosthetics.

On Thursday, the Rhode Island woman was measured for her new high-definition silicone "cover" ­- a combination of craftsmanship and advanced technology that replicates a human leg, and it's been specifically designed to accommodate high heels.

She's thrown out the first pitch at Fenway, met backstage with Beyonce and been featured on the cover of People magazine, but the thrill of knowing she would soon have a leg that matches her biological leg was obvious as she greeted a gaggle of media at Next Step's offices in the Manchester Millyard.

Press coverage

Television crews and reporters from throughout New England were on hand to witness the fitting, shaping and refitting of the foam cover that will be used by technicians at Dorset Orthopedic in England to sculpt a block of silicone into a prosthetic covering that mirrors Abbott's biological leg.

Dorset gained international notoriety when amputee Heather Mills, a Dorset patient and former wife of Paul McCartney, was a contestant on "Dancing with the Stars'' in 2007 with her lifelike prosthesis cover.

"They are literally handmade out of a block of silicone by fine art students, and are hand-painted from the inside to recreate the translucence of skin," said Matthew Albuquerque, Next Step president and a certified prosthetist. "They are almost small pieces of art to a certain degree."

And at $20,000 average cost, they are not covered by insurance.

"It's considered cosmetic, a luxury, unfortunately," Albuquerque said, "but for someone like Heather, it's not a luxury, it's what she always had."

Poised and determined

Abbott, 38, works in human resources for Raytheon at offices in Portsmouth, R.I., and recently returned to work part-time.

She was poised and showed no difficulty walking as she entered the exam room at Next Step to be measured and fitted by Dave Newman, production supervisor.

"When I first got my initial leg, it was really big and bulky; it hurt a lot to put it on, and I couldn't walk on it," she said. "It was kind of disappointing. It's certainly gotten better since then, but that was my first moment of realizing it's never going to be my leg."

Next step

After a series of measurements, Newman took the foam cover to a small machine shop to shave and shape it to the precise form, after which Abbott stood for another round of testing in 4-inch heels. In all, she spent about two hours at the Manchester office, until Newman and Albuquerque were convinced they had the exact model needed for shipping to England. The finished product is expected back in a month or two.

Albuquerque said Next Step, which also has offices in Warwick, R.I., and Newton, Mass., is one of only two companies that Dorset has partnered with in the United States.

Next Step is working with seven of the 16 bombing victims who lost a limb.

"This technology will not get her back to the real thing, but pretty close," he said. "There's no way Heather would be at this point without some good prosthetic care, but also her fantastic attitude, her persistence, and diligence to move forward."

Raising money online

That persistence was on display recently when Abbott used a water-proof prosthetic covering to do some paddle-boarding. As she gets more comfortable with the prosthetic limb, she is anxious for the lifelike covering to arrive.

"I want it to look as much like my own leg as possible," she said.

"I had my first experience with having an exposed leg while paddle-boarding, and even though the covering I have is flesh-colored and somewhat cosmetic, it's not like the leg I am getting. I'll feel more comfortable with something that is not as recognizable."

As Albuquerque checked out her walking and waterproof prosthetic covers, Abbott discussed the costs of her treatment and fundraising efforts that are underway on her behalf. She has health insurance and help from the One Fund Boston, but she is facing a lifetime of prosthetic-related expenses.

The Heather Abbott Recovery Fund has raised more than $186,000 on the crowd-sourcing website, with 2,405 people contributing in the four months since the bombing.

Insurance companies have promised that all survivors will have all the care they need, according to the Washington Post, but time will tell.

"We'll have to see if they walk the walk," Albuquerque said. "No pun intended."

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