By Julie Inman
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.”
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.
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.
Upon renting the board and paddle for the video, French discovered the paddle was adjustable, which meant the twisting mechanism that locked the two pieces of the paddle shaft was not allowing his prosthetic tube device to slide along the paddle as required during his stroke.
This small difference in equipment, that others may never notice, became a large hindrance for French. It is now known that a one-piece paddle or a two-piece button-locking paddle works best with this prosthetic.
Regardless of physical limitations or mobility restrictions, French is proof that most anyone can get out on the water for multiple recreational activities, often with only minor adaptations. It is also evident that opening recreational opportunities up to all is achievable.
With some creative thinking, planning, and a fresh perspective, public recreational facilities and parks can become more user-friendly to youth, senior citizens, and those with limitations.
“You need people like Terry Hobbs to show an interest and take you under their wing,” French says.
Learn How To Adapt
Since his encounter with French, Hobbs has since been approached by Dan Doyle, who is without a leg, and whose needs are much different than French’s.
In continuing to help people achieve mobility, Hobbs has adopted three kayak-adaptation principles:
1. Outfit the kayak for optimal safety and mobility
2. Provide stable seating
3. Ensure skin protection.
When it comes to equipping the paddler, the proper personal flotation device (PFD) needs to be selected based on the paddler.
Additionally, the safest kayak needs to be selected, whether it’s a sit-on-top or a sit-in. A sit-on-top is easier to get in, while a sit-in is somewhat more challenging but often preferred. The paddle length and type must be determined and, finally, the prosthesis may need to be modified.
For Doyle, a sit-on-top kayak was selected with a larger PFD. He also needed a pad for his remaining limb to assist his paddling. Since balance was a challenge when transferring from land to the boat, a strap was also attached to the kayak handle.
Doyle also added a flotation device to his prosthesis in case he needed to remove it for any reason. Since making these modifications, Doyle has recently completed a 3-hour tour of Upper Tampa Bay and Safety Harbor.
“People with limitations vary even with the same limitations. Each has their own personal requirements; therefore, the kayak and paddle has to be modified to handle these differences to ensure safety for the paddler,” Hobbs notes.
“Persons with spinal injury need seating that will not pinch bones to the skin, cutting off blood supply as they cannot feel their lower extremities. Larry and Dan have different requirements, but they can paddle together in a common environment.”
Boundless recreational opportunities are where you least expect to find them. French found his while visiting Safety Harbor Marina, and Hobbs found a unique opportunity to teach his passion—kayaking. Together, they found a way to help make public parks and recreation more accessible to everyone.
To see French in action, visit www.severnkayaking.com and click the link to “Larry the Paddler” or “Recreational Prosthetic Devices with Larry.”
French has released all rights to his video to WCBL, which has already used it for CEU trainings for occupational and physical therapists as well as with the James A. Haley VA Hospital Prosthetic Department for their trainings.
Julie Inman is the Recreation Facility Manager for the Rigsby Recreation Center. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.