The Bionic Man

I spent part of Thursday afternoon with Don Malone, a 64-year-old retiree who lost the bottom portion of his right leg in a oil field accident more than 30 years ago. Malone recently received a new prosthetic foot, featuring an ankle joint controlled by a small computer mounted to the back of the leg’s calf. That computer, fed by sensors throughout the foot, tell the motor in the ankle to adjust the angle of the joint as the terrain warrants.

The foot is high-tech to say the least. The company that makes the foot, Ossur, released the model only this year after years of studies and prototypes. A technician I spoke to who consults for the company said that only about 100 have been fitted in the United States, many of them at Walter Reed for returning Iraq war veterans.

But the foot was only the starting point to get into the story of Malone’s life since 1975, when the accident occurred. At the time, Malone was working the oil fields near Roundup, Mont. It was a time when a college education wasn’t exactly a requirement for working in a oil field, and when management found a shortage of labor, they recruited roughnecks from local bars.

In January 1975, Malone was working on a crew, not doing the draftsman job he was trained for–drafting jobs usually only opened up with the previous job holder retired or died. Instead, he was helping with the heavy machinery on a drill platform. The man operating the motor that day was drunk, and when Malone slipped, he wasn’t aware enough to throttle the engine down. A two-ton piece of equipment crushed Malone’s right leg below the knee. Doctors amputated it a short time later.

Malone was, needless to say, devastated. Anyone who makes a living lifting heavy things would have been. Worse yet, he said, the company did not reprimand or punish the drunk. Without any kind of justice, Malone’s mind turned to revenge.

He recalled that he went to Billings, bought a pistol and fired 50 rounds a day in target practice. Malone intended to shoot the man who had taken his foot. Fortunately, a cooler head prevailed, and Malone didn’t shoot anybody. He decided that no matter what had happened to him, he couldn’t hurt someone else.

Instead, he got his new prosthetic foot and went back to work for the oil company. You might wonder why he went back to work for the company that allowed a drunken worker to get off without so much as a docked paycheck. Malone said it was because he was afraid that no one else would ever hire him in his condition, not for the kind of work he was trained to do.

It was a decision that would yet again alter his life.

Eight years later, in 1983, Malone was repairing a motor in a shed when a support on a oil derrick snapped. The unit collapsed onto the shed where he was working and knocked Malone into a coma. When he awoke, all his intelligence and memories from his life before the accident were gone.

He spent years in Billings hospitals, relearning to speak and walk and live independently. During that time, he met and married his second wife, Ethel, who was attending Eastern Montana College. It was a long struggle, but he called himself “one of the lucky ones.” In that he meant that so many others with brain damage wind up in youth homes or in the Warm Springs mental hospital. He was able to overcome his accidents, marry and live a semi-normal life.

Part of that life included running a foster care facility for developmentally disabled adults and children in Billings for years. Another part of it included remaining active with the sports and recreations he always enjoyed, biking, swimming (which he had a special, waterproof leg made for) and, most of all, skiing.

Since he and Ethel moved to Bozeman, Malone has volunteered with Eagle Mount, a nonprofit that helps children and adults with disabilities in the community. They have a ski program that he spends a lot of time with during the snowy months. It is almost an obsession for him, and in conversation, he easily latches onto any excuse to turn the conversation to skiing.

His wife said that was part of his brain damage, a tendency to become distracted and to digress onto certain subjects. He is also something of a perfectionist, she said, a condition that can make him hard to live with at times. Malone also speaks with some difficulty, but less than one might expect for a man who says that his “second life” began 24 years ago at age 40.

Sitting outside their motorhome on a summer afternoon, Malone demonstrates the foot. When he extends his leg, the motor kicks in with a soft buzz and extends his foot (plantar flexion, in technical terms). When he brings the foot back toward him, the flexion reverses.

There is a slight delay, which he said was unexpected and is somewhat annoying, but he has adapted very well, already navigating the uneven surface of the field in which they are parked. (The couple has rented out their house in anticipation of heading out on a long road trip–they are living in the motorhome in the meantime.)

“They told me I’d be like Darth Vader,” Malone said as he demonstrated. But he also said he didn’t think of himself as the “bionic man.”

Instead, he’s just one of the lucky ones.

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