Embrace Adaptation

Larry French stood in the marina in Safety Harbor, Fla., eyeing kayaks on a trailer. The 67-year-old above-elbow amputee looked at his right arm, which ended just 4 inches below his shoulder, and said to himself, “I can do that. I can kayak.”

A missing limb wasn’t going to stop Larry French from learning to kayak. Photos Courtesy Terry Hobbs, Prosthesis by: www.wcbl.com

French began to mentally sketch a limb with one purpose—functionality.

French had tried traditional full-length adult prosthetics before, but found them to be too long, heavy, painful, and cumbersome. Determined to kayak, he met with his Veterans Affairs doctor, who referred him to Westcoast Brace and Limb (WCBL), a private company that specializes in prosthetic limbs.

Together, French and WCBL came up with a design for his unique kayaking arm—a shorter prosthetic arm with a tube-like device fit onto the end—the perfect size for a paddle.

“It took a lot of hit and miss,” French recalls. After four or five prototypes, the design was finalized.

Around the same time, French met Terry Hobbs, a tour guide, instructor, and longtime paddler and kayak enthusiast. Between Hobbs’ paddling expertise and French’s ideas, they were able to create a prosthetic perfect for paddling.

Two-Piece Prosthetic Prototype

The final product is a two-piece prosthetic. The first piece is a soft silicone liner that rolls onto French’s arm, with a small metal joint at the end. He first sprays the silicone liner with an alcohol-and-water mixture, and then rolls the liner into his arm and shoulder.

Next, he sprays the second piece and fits it snugly over the liner. The two pieces automatically click-lock together.

He then fastens a strap over his shoulder, across his back, and around his other shoulder.

At the end of his prosthetic forearm, where his hand would be, is a metal and rubber piece shaped like a toilet-paper tube that fastens onto an artificial pivot joint that allows the tube to rotate. The tube can open with Velcro straps, or the paddle can slide through the tube. The tube allows it to slide up and down the paddle as needed between strokes.

The release button is on the prosthetic. When he’s finished paddling, French pushes the button to release his arm from the silicone liner. He then sprays the liner and rolls it back off his remaining limb.

In addition to the kayak prosthetic, French now has prosthetics specially designed to fish, stand-up paddleboard, bicycle, and even work in his home woodshop. He’s also found that the paddleboard prosthetic can be used for yard work and raking leaves.

The five prostheses are similar in design, with two pieces that lock together; the biggest variance is the end piece. While the kayak and paddleboard feature a tube-like device, the fishing and woodworking prosthetics both use a round rubber-end piece.

Meanwhile, the bike arm is longer because it needs to reach the handlebars. French’s bike has seven gears and two hand-brakes, so he had his bike adapted to put both brake lines onto the left handlebar. A longer arm—an adolescent elbow and forearm prosthetic versus an adult size—works well in this case because it is lighter and also rests on the bike’s handlebar, so the weight and leverage are no longer an issue.

Overcoming Roadblocks

To provide a roadmap to others, French decided to shoot an educational video. While testing the paddleboard prosthetic, everything was initially smooth paddling. However, there was one small detail that was overlooked.

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