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JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas - After a decade of excruciating pain, Frank Larraza figured he'd never be able to walk pain-free again. But in a month's time, this 24-year Army veteran has gone from crawling to walking to running.
"It's an amazing feeling to just stand upright again without pain," Larraza said in an interview at the Center for the Intrepid, Brooke Army Medical Center's outpatient rehabilitation center. "I feel like I've been given a rebirth."
Larraza is back on his feet again thanks to the Intrepid Dynamic Exoskeletal Orthosis, a lightweight, carbon-fiber device that delivers nearly instantaneous results.
A Center for the Intrepid team created the IDEO about five years ago to increase mobility and decrease pain for wounded service members with lower leg injuries, said Johnny Owens, CFI's chief, Human Performance Optimization Program.
Many of these patients had been opting for delayed amputations rather than face long recoveries with potentially limited function at the outcome.
"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."
After a decade of pain, Larraza had entertained the thought of amputation on more than one occasion. His right foot had been injured by embedded glass during a soccer game, and he had unknowingly fractured his left foot, but continued to run on both for years. These injuries, compounded by multiple surgeries, worsened over the years and left Larraza frustrated, unable to work, and in severe pain.
A few weeks earlier, Larraza had been in such agonizing pain when he walked, he'd drop to his hands and knees at home and crawl.
"I developed callouses on my knees and elbows," he said. "That was the way I would move around the house, crawling like an animal."
With no viable options in sight, 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."
Sensing his desperation, his brother-in-law suggested Larraza look into the IDEO program at the CFI, which was just a few hours' drive from his home in Arlington, Texas. The device, he'd heard, was enabling service members in severe pain to walk and even run again.
Larraza limped into the CFI on crutches, overweight from years of inactivity, and grimacing from the pain, Owens said.
"It was a heartbreaking story for us; he was so many years out from injury," he said. "But at the same time, we felt confident the IDEO would help him."
Over the past five years, Owens has seen the IDEO transform hundreds of lives.
Service members who limped in with severe extremity wounds from IED blasts could walk virtually pain free in minutes, and run within days. For many warriors, it was the first time they'd walked without pain in years.
"It takes a person who is disabled to being able to run within a week in most cases," he said. "It's the biggest game changer I've ever seen."
Today, more than 600 service members are wearing IDEOs, Owens said, citing a study that says 50 percent of these troops were able to maintain their active duty status.
The CFI staff had Larraza try out two IDEO molds first to test their effectiveness.
"I took a few steps down the hall, turned around, and after a couple of trips was walking normally," he said. "Just being able to stand up without a cane was amazing."
When 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."
Taking a holistic approach, the CFI gave Larraza classes on nutrition and fitness, and sports psychology to manage his sleep skills and goal setting. In a month he dropped 20 pounds and began to run, an activity his wife and 16-year-old son were hard-pressed to believe.
During a visit home, he decided a demonstration was in order.
"I sprinted down the street and back," he recalled. "My wife was in tears. I went from crawling to walking to running again in a matter of days. It was absolutely amazing."
Owens said he hopes success stories like Larraza's will one day become the norm, adding that efforts are underway to move the IDEO to the civilian sector. The CFI is also working to spread the word that the IDEO is available not just 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, the sky is the limit, Owens said.
"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."