Ken Wisham, Finding the Right Fit

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By Maria St. Louis-Sanchez
Ken Wisham

Photographs courtesy of Todd Clay.

Ken Wisham

Wisham displays the prosthetic foot combination that has provided a significant change for him.

From a body builder in training to having bilateral amputations, Ken Wisham says he is still shocked at how his life changed so drastically.

In 1992, the then-32-year-old from Birmingham, Alabama, was hanging billboard signs for a living. He leaned over to pick something up and ruptured three discs in his back. From that one injury, Wisham says, came a spiral of medical conditions that would result in months in the hospital, heart disease, the loss of both of his legs, and an almost eight-year struggle following his amputations to find comfort and mobility with his prostheses.

Prior to injuring his back, Wisham says he was in top shape. He had previously worked in a steel factory and as a mechanic before hanging billboards, which required him to haul several pounds of equipment up and down ladders as tall as 250 feet.

"Before I got sick, I was the picture of perfect health," he says. "I had never been in the hospital a day in my life except to be born. I was in the gym every other day working out. When not in the gym, I was in karate class. My biceps were 18 inches in diameter. I could bench press 500 pounds easily."

After hurting his back, Wisham says he tried to fight through the pain for about two to three weeks but was limited in the work he could do. Then one morning he woke up and had no sensation from his hips down. His physician sent him to a neurologist who told him that he needed surgery immediately to repair his back.

Wisham was supposed to be in the hospital for three days after the surgery and out of work for six weeks. Instead, complications led to six months in the hospital, he says. Physicians told him that he had developed vasculitic neuropathy, an inflammation of the blood vessels that can affect all of the body's systems. He stayed in the hospital fighting the condition for six months before being sent home, still weak and with little mobility.

One morning in 2002 he noticed a serious negative development. "I woke up..., and my right foot was black," he says. "It just died like that."

The physicians told him there was nothing they could do to save the limb; they amputated most of his right leg. But after continued complications over the next three years, he developed an ulcer on his left foot that eventually became infected. A month and a half after the ulcer developed, his foot necrotized, and surgeons removed most of his left leg.

Eventually the complications affected Wisham's heart; he had several heart attacks, leaving him unable to work.

Through the whole ordeal, Wisham says that the toughest part has been being unable to work and take care of his family. He says his characteristic self-reliance made his poor health and mobility issues especially difficult. He refused help even when he needed it and preferred to fall rather than have someone reach out a hand for stability. "I think that people who start relying on others to do things get weaker and can't get well again," he says.

After his amputations, Wisham says he knew his life would be different, but he didn't expect to also have to contend with ill-fitting and painful prostheses. He continued to try to make the most of what he had, but when it came to using his prostheses, he often developed blisters and could only walk short distances before the pain forced him to stop. His prostheses didn't provide stability either since he couldn't trust his prosthetic feet on uneven ground. At the time, he was in K3-level carbon feet for stability and energy storage. According to his prosthetist, Todd Clay, CPO, LPO, area clinic manager for Hanger Clinic, Birmingham, the poor socket fit coupled with the specific prosthetic feet he was using meant Wisham was in pain and didn't have a lot of control over his feet.

Wisham says, "I couldn't do much of anything. I could get around the house, but as far as being out and enjoying life-I did not do much of that. I just sat around the house, and I wasn't able to work and make money; I couldn't, with the pain I was having."

Wisham and Clay met about five years ago, and Clay says he knew he had a challenge when he first evaluated Wisham. Wisham had short residual limbs with little tibia remaining. "To complicate matters, the limbs did not have much muscular or tissue coverage, resulting in an irregular shape," he says. He understood why Wisham was in such pain. "It's not a real good surface-bearing area."

After various attempts, Clay decided a twofold approach would be best. First, he would work to ensure that the prostheses fit comfortably. He cast and fit Wisham with custom polyurethane liners and used elevated vacuum socket systems to help alleviate some of the pressure in the sockets.

Wisham says he never knew it was possible get custom liners. "[Hanger] formed casts to my stumps to make liners out of them. I didn't even know they did that kind of stuff," he says.

Clay's next challenge was to increase Wisham's mobility by fitting him with Endolite élan microprocessor-controlled feet. Microprocessor-controlled feet are beneficial for people with bilateral amputations because they make real-time adjustments in walking patterns, Clay says. "That means if you are descending a hill, [they] will provide resistance to help you from going too quickly." This is especially important because people with bilateral amputations don't have a sound limb to provide stability, he explains.

Once Wisham had his new sockets and microprocessor feet, he says his quality of life changed dramatically. He immediately started tackling home improvement projects that he had previously been unable to do. "[The new prosthetic devices] did their magic, and I have been nonstop since then," he says. "I have replaced the floor in the kitchen and bathroom and painted my house. I go up and down ladders [to] hang sheetrock. I am almost back to a normal life except for the heart issues. If they could do for my heart what Todd did for my legs, I'd be a happy man."

While his heart condition still prevents Wisham from holding a job, he is now able to enjoy his life, he says. Wisham says his story proves that patients should always be willing to fight for themselves and work to find the best solution for their situations. "If things aren't fitting right, find someone who can fix it," he says. "They are out there."

Clay says he's been impressed with how long Wisham worked to find a solution and how fast he got to work learning to use his new devices as soon as they had found the solution for him.

"He's an inspiration, that's the easiest way to describe it," Clay says.

Wisham says he's glad he didn't give up and he hopes others in his situation push on as well.

"Life's too short," he says. "There's too much technology out there to give up and quit."

Maria St. Louis-Sanchez can be reached at