The Intrepid Dynamic Exoskeletal Orthosis (IDEO), a lightweight, carbon-fiber device created at the Center for the Intrepid at Brooke Army Medical Center’s outpatient rehabilitation center in San Antonio, Texas, has enabled Frank Larraza to walk pain free after a decade of excruciating pain.
IDEO was created five years ago by a CFI team aiming to increase mobility and decrease pain for wounded service members with lower leg injuries, as explained by Johnny Owens, Human Performance Optimization Program’s Chief at CFI. Many patients with such injuries had been opting for amputations when faced with long, potentially limited function-outcome recoveries.
“We felt there was value to keeping a leg and value to having a prosthetic,” Owens said. “So, we created an exoskeleton based off of the same principles as a running leg for amputees.”
Larraza’s right foot was injured by embedded glass during a soccer game and his left foot had unknowingly been fractured. Despite all this, he continued running on both feet for years. These injuries, which doctors have tried to fix by multiple surgeries, had worsened over time, leaving Larraza frustrated, unable to work and in severe pain. In the course of a decade of suffering, he considered amputation more than once.
The pain as he walked was so agonizing he would drop to his hands and knees and crawl, when he was at home. “I developed callouses on my knees and elbows,” he said. “That was the way I would move around the house, crawling like an animal.” Thinking he had no options, he asked his doctors to amputate. “They wouldn’t do it,” he said. “But I was in so much pain, I told my wife I was going to get dry ice and a couple of buckets and freeze my feet to the point where they weren’t salvageable so they’d have to cut them off.”
His brother-in-law then suggested he look into the IDEO program at the CFI, which is just a few hours’ drive from Arlington, Texas, where he lives. He had heard the device was enabling service members in severe pain to walk and even run again.
Larraza walked into the CFI with the help of crutches and grimacing from pain. He was overweight because of years of inactivity. “It was a heartbreaking story for us; he was so many years out from injury,” Owens recalled. “But at the same time, we felt confident the IDEO would help him.”
During the past five years, IDEO has transformed hundreds of lives. Service members who limped with severe extremity wounds from IDE blasts were able to walk virtually pain free within minutes, and run within days, since IDEO delivers almost instantaneous results. It was the first time many warriors walked pain free in years.
“It’s an amazing feeling to just stand upright again without pain,” Larraza said in an interview at the CFI. “I feel like I’ve been given a rebirth.”
“It takes a person who is disabled to being able to run within a week in most cases,” Owens said. “It’s the biggest game changer I’ve ever seen.”
At the CFI, Larraza began by trying out two IDEO molds to test their effectiveness. “I took a few steps down the hall, turned around, and after a couple of trips was walking normally,” he recalled. “Just being able to stand up without a cane was amazing.”
He later saw a video of those first steps, “I got teary eyed,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it; it was like there was nothing wrong with me.”
In a holistic approach, Larraza was given classes on nutrition and fitness, and sports psychology to manage his sleep skills and goal setting. Within a month, he had dropped 20 pounds and began to run, an activity his wife and 16-year-old son could hardly believe.
During a visit home, he thought a demonstration was needed. “I sprinted down the street and back,” he said. “My wife was in tears.”
“I went from crawling to walking to running again in a matter of days,” he added. “It was absolutely amazing.”
Owens hopes success stories like Larraza’s will one day become the norm, adding that efforts are being made in order to move the IDEO to the civilian sector. The CFI is also spreading the word that the IDEO is available not only for combat wounded, but also for all military beneficiaries who have sustained a wide range of sports and accident-related injuries.
“There are people like Frank all over the country, the world, suffering from injuries … children who are born unable to run,” he said. “The IDEO could make a huge difference in their quality of life.”
As for Larraza, Owens says the sky is the limit. Larraza agrees. “Life before the IDEO program was terrible,” he said. “Now, I see myself doing just about anything. But first, I want to spend some time with my 3-year-old granddaughter.
“Being able to enjoy life with her… it’s the ultimate satisfaction,” Larraza added.
More than 600 service members are wearing IDEOs today, Owens said, citing a study that states that 50 percent of these were able to maintain their active duty status.