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Everest extreme amputee going for summit
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May 14, 2004 15: 17 EST
Nawang Sherpa will go into the history books if he reaches the summit of Everest and he expects to do so this Sunday. What makes him so special? Well, for one he has a prosthetic leg so ExWeb interviewed Nawang’s prosthetist/orthotist, Tom Halvorson to find out more.

Ed Hommer played a key role

ExWeb: What makes Nawang's prosthesis unique for climbing?

Tom: Nawang’s prosthesis is unique for climbing. It is warm, comfortable, ultra light and he has two with him, so he can change them when he loses volume in the residual limb caused by weight loss and dehydration which will happen on an expedition of this magnitude.

He uses two inserts to reduce sheer forces, keep him warm and is more forgiving as his limb loses volume or size.

He is using a Luxon Max DP foot as its carbon composite construction is durable, ultra light and conforms to rough terrain. Ed Hommer played a key role in the development of the Luxon Max foot. Both Ed and I worked with the engineers from Springlite, an Otto Bock Health Care Division, in the preliminary stages of the design.

Above or below?

ExWeb:What is the difference between above knee and below knee amputations?

Tom: If you are amputated above the ankle but below the knee joint it is called a trans-tibial or below the knee amputation. If you are amputated above the knee joint through the femur, this would be called a trans-femoral or above knee amputation. Nawang is a short, below the knee or trans-tibial amputee.

ExWeb: What could you say in regards to your friendship/work with Ed Hommer; who was he to you? With Nawang? With Tom McMillan?

Tom: I first met Ed Hommer in 1984, three years after his accident. He could barely walk with crutches. You could see the pain in his face with every step. When he walked out of the office with his new prostheses, he was comfortable and did not need crutches. We were friends ever since.

"We were brothers by fate"

A prosthetist gets close to his patients as he sees them on a regular basis but we were more than friends, we were brothers by fate. Even in Ed’s passing, I am close to his family. I called his mother last week and told her of Nawang’s progress. She was happy to hear he was doing well especially since the High Exposure Foundation, Ed’s Foundation, was sponsoring him.

I learned a lot from working with Ed. I never considered myself a climber, but Ed made sure I walked the walk. In 1998 and 1999 I went with him to Denali not as a climber but as support staff and he made sure I stood on the mountain.

With Ed on Everest

I also accompanied him to Everest’s North Face in Tibet in 2001. I went a little higher than British Camp II but was there primarily to make sure he didn’t have any problems on the lower elevations of the mountain. I experienced first hand what altitude, dehydration and weight loss does to a residual limb. This made it easier to fit Nawang with a prosthesis conducive to climbing.

“Magic Man”

Nawang met Ed in Katmandu in 2001 and Ed immediately wanted him to come to Minnesota to be fit by “his guy”. Ed called me the “Magic Man” but the magic was in his heart. When Ed returned to Minnesota, he made arrangements for the High Exposure Foundation to fly him here so I could fit him.

Tom McMillan called me a few months ago and said he was putting together an expedition to Everest and Nawang was going as a team member.

Nawang had gained weight!

I told him the prosthesis I had made for him was almost two years old so he should be re-fit before the expedition. I made arrangements through the High Exposure Foundation to fly him back to Duluth, Minnesota to be re-fit. I was glad I did as Nawang had gained weight, not to mention he did not wear the prosthesis all the time. He only wore it when trekking or climbing as he was not sure when he would get another one and was saving it for the future.

The future of extreme prosthetics is unlimited.

ExWeb: Where are 'extreme' prosthetics going in the future of adventure for the disabled?

Tom:The future of extreme prosthetics for the physically challenged is unlimited. Technology is improving at an exciting rate. With the use of space-age materials and micro processing units, the future is going to be wild. I have never tried to limit my patient’s activities. I just evaluate what the patient’s needs are and build the prosthesis to accommodate them.

He cannot feel his foot

Nawang will face many challenges when climbing with his prosthesis. His residual limb is not what I would call conducive to climbing. It is approximately 3 inches long and he developed a hyperextension issue of about 18 degrees walking with his first prosthesis on the hills around Katmandu.

We addressed the instability and hyperextension issues. With a prosthesis he cannot feel his foot so he will need to be careful with his foot placement especially when coming down.

Deep snow is a problem

Deep snow is a problem with all amputees. We address this by using 3 types of suspension. We used supra patella and supracondylar impingement which means we made the prosthesis above the patella and above the femoral condyle and put pressure on these areas for suspension and stability.

He also has a belt and fork strap to use for safety or when the snow gets too deep. His prosthesis weighs only 2 ½ pounds but will seem heavy as he gets tired. We bought him a new pair of boots when he was in Duluth which gave him blisters on his good foot but to my knowledge, he is not having any problems with his prosthesis.

Amputees climb many mountains in life

Amputees climb many mountains in life not only physical but emotional mountains as well. I believe Nawang will be successful not only at summiting Everest but in all the challenges amputees face everyday. Not only because of modern technology but because he has an unwavering desire to succeed and that is what it takes to stand on top of the hill.

Ultimately, God, Mother Nature and the highest mountain in the world will decide if they stand at the top of the hill. My thoughts and prayers will be with them until their safe return.

A motorcycle wreck in summer 2000 left Nawang Sherpa, an aspiring high-altitude guide in Nepal, an amputee. In 2001 he received his first prosthetic leg from UC San Francisco. He got a new "climbing leg" in 2002 thanks to the High Exposure foundation, a nonprofit launched by Ed Hommer, who lost his own legs on Denali and hoped to scale Everest one day together with Nawang. Climbing with a Peak Promotion group, Nawang easily climbed to C2 on Mount Everest. Ed's own Everest dream however ended in tragedy a few months later when a rock struck and killed him on Mount Rainier Sep 23, 2003. This year Tom McMillan, a California climber, stepped in to make Nawang's dream to scale Mount Everest a reality. Tom, Nawang and Peak Promotion are going for it this spring.

"It is not just about the enduring love of mountains and the formative challenges of climbing them. It is also friendship—beyond the borders of nations and cultures and capabilities. The Everest: Friendship Beyond Borders expedition will prove how people working together can tackle the toughest problems in the world. And it will help not only Nawang Sherpa, but other people throughout the world who are committed to rebuilding their lives and careers." - Tom McMillan

Tom Halvorson with Nawang in MN last February.

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