Marine Corps Veteran Jim Mechenbier hopes to ride his motorcycle again with his new prosthetic leg.
After serving four years from 1994 to 1998 as a motor-T truck driver in Okinawa, Japan, and Camp Pendleton, California, Mechenbier returned home to Pittsburgh. He began receiving care at VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System shortly thereafter.
Mechenbier’s prosthetic leg “…enabled him to ambulate quickly which is not only good for his mental health but also his physical strength to prevent any further muscle atrophy.”
In 2015, he was in a motorcycle accident and broke his left leg in nine places. He lost all the cartilage in his knee and underwent a three-inch bone graft.
Dad: Not fusing… you can’t ride your motorcycle
A VA Pittsburgh surgeon gave Mechenbier three options: do nothing and continue to live with pain; allow the surgeon to remove everything from the knee and fuse his upper and lower legs, which would leave his leg immobile; or amputate.
“The pain started getting so bad I couldn’t take it,” he said. “I told my dad about fusing my leg, and he said that’s no good, then you can’t ride your motorcycle.”
Mechenbier chose amputation because he thought it was his best option. VA Pittsburgh surgeons performed the above-the-knee amputation in January 2021.
It typically takes six to eight weeks to create a prosthesis for an amputee, but Mechenbier received his in just three thanks to the work of Pittsburgh VA supervisory orthotist/prosthetist Andrew Chambers and his team.
“We wanted to make it happen for him sooner than later, so we measured him for liners and ordered a prefabricated socket that was new to the market,” Chambers said. “Very new. Otto Bock Varos socket. This enabled him to ambulate quickly, which is not only good for his mental health but also his physical strength to prevent any further muscle atrophy.”
Innovative product reduces timeline for new limbs
Chambers, an Air Force Veteran, introduced an innovative prosthetic product at the start of the coronavirus pandemic that drastically reduces the timeline for providing Veterans with new limbs following below-the-knee amputations. He then set a goal to expand the technology to serve Veterans with above-the-knee amputations.
Working with Chambers and his team following the amputation, Mechenbier was able to stand in just two weeks and walk in three. He was thrilled to receive his new prosthetic leg at the end of March and requested a video of himself using it to show his parents and wife.
Pictured above, a therapist works with Mechenbier on core strength and balance. Mechenbier is holding a resistance band which is, essentially, a large rubber band that he tries to keep straight as the therapist pulls.
Chambers added, “He loves his new socket, but the prefabricated socket served its purpose and provided us the ability to get him standing in weeks versus months as compared to sending him to a vendor. VA Pittsburgh has invested in 3D printing, the Symphonie Aqua Casting System, CAD-CAM carver, and digital scanning software.”
Harley-Davidson logo was laminated in his prosthetic socket. Pittsburgh VA is building a prosthetics/orthotics lab and hiring a technician who will provide this capability.
Mechenbier then asked when he could ride his motorcycle.
“Working with the team, they’ve been incredible,”Mechenbier said. “I can’t even put into words how great they are. Not just Andrew, but also all the nurses and physical therapy staff when I was staying at rehab for a week. Everything was just incredible, you felt like you were at home.”
Mechenbier’s leg prosthesis required initial adjustment, but he soon adapted well, walking around by himself without assistance and successfully managing daily activities.
“It’s like being two years old trying to learn to walk all over again,” he added. “So far, I’ve been able to do everything I used to do before. I just have to learn to slow down a little bit. I try to go the same speed now.”
In addition to riding his beloved motorcycle, Mechenbier looks forward to participating in bass fishing tournaments and simply enjoying relaxing on Pennsylvania’s many bodies of water.
“I’ve been riding motorcycles since I was five years old, it’s part of me,” he said. “It’s great to feel the wind in your face. It’s the closest thing you can get to flying.”
Chambers is grateful for his team’s hard work and effort that led to Mechenbier walking with his new prosthetic.
“This doesn’t happen without them and their expediency to get these types of outcomes,” Chambers said. “I wish more staff could have been in the clinic to share in this moment. They’re changing lives for the better. It’s getting exciting over here in Pittsburgh and I’m looking forward to progressing this process.”
Hope Nelson is a public affairs specialist for the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System.