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Prosthetic limbs for amputees have come a long way in the last decade thanks in large part to wounded warriors from Iraq and Afghanistan. The new prosthetics are lighter and more comfortable. Skin tone is out. Customization is in, including tattoos. A new business way up in the Adirondack Mountains of New York state is taking it a step further and taking prosthetics to the Internet. North Country Public Radio's David Sommerstein reports.
DAVID SOMMERSTEIN, BYLINE: The back room of Jeff Erenstone's clinic in Lake Placid is a Geppetto's workshop of dust and tools and prosthetic calves and feet in various stages of completion. Like many prosthetists, he builds devices that cater to the medical needs of his clients, and he can decorate them according to their esthetic whims. He grabs a prosthetic leg from a shelf.
JEFF ERENSTONE: OK, so this guy's actually a prison guard, and so he got a Supertramp "Crime Of The Century" on there.
SOMMERSTEIN: And it's like is that, like, the album cover...
ERENSTONE: That's the album cover...
SOMMERSTEIN: ...That Supertramp album?
ERENSTONE: Exactly, yeah.
SOMMERSTEIN: The trend in prosthetics these days, Erenstone says, is personalize your limb.
ERENSTONE: Absolutely, 100 percent there's a trend. Way more people these days want a cool design like this than they want something flesh-colored.
SOMMERSTEIN: The prosthetic itself - the socket that fits the body, the metal pipe replacing bone, the foot - those are medical products. An amputee needs to see a specialist like Erenstone in person for those. But another part is its cover, a plastic that protects the prosthetic and gives it leg shape.
Erenstone had this idea. What if people could order a custom design cover online? So he bought some 3-D printers, hired a graphic designer and formed a separate company called Create Prosthetics. Bergan Flannigan was one of his first customers. She ordered a cover embossed with Rosie the Riveter.
BERGAN FLANNIGAN: I just think she's cool. She's a pioneer for women's rights and everything.
SOMMERSTEIN: Flannigan lost her right leg above the knee in a roadside bomb explosion while she was on patrol in Kandahar, Afghanistan, six years ago. She says lots of young vets want their prosthetic, the reality of their sacrifice, right out there.
FLANNIGAN: A lot of guys put their unit crest on the prosthetic somewhere or the Army flag or whatever it is just to show that, hey, this is how I lost my leg. I didn't it - it wasn't something I was born with. It wasn't in a car accident or anything like that. I fought for my country and this is what happened.
SOMMERSTEIN: Create's covers aren't just for veterans. They're $500 apiece. You can buy more than one and swap them out if you want. Clients order cars embossed on their covers or a marijuana leaf, sports teams, butterflies, a picture of your dog. The 3-D printers go pretty much nonstop these days as orders come in from across North America and as far away as Australia and China.
Erenstone credits the success on a little principle in design psychology. We humans, Erenstone explains, are attracted to artificial body parts the more human they look, but there comes a point - think that sallow, orange, manufactured look of a mannequin - when our attraction plummets. We just think creepy.
ERENSTONE: You know, I mean, like, where it looks close to human, but it's not quite human. I don't know the technical term, but let's just go with creepy.
SOMMERSTEIN: But then when the body part looks really human, we're attracted to it again.
ERENSTONE: So you either make something that looks perfectly human or you make something that is not necessarily supposed to look human but gives you the impression of human.
SOMMERSTEIN: And looks really cool.
This is Create's happy zone, a limb that puts personality before trying to mimic what was lost. And Erenstone believes strongly it's a healthy place for an amputee to be. For NPR News, I'm David Sommerstein in Lake Placid, N.Y.
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