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Promise and Progress - A New Leg for Carla

Engineering Cures: Physicians and Engineers Working Together to Fight Cancer
Issue No. 2012

A New Leg for Carla

By: Valerie Matthews Mehl
Date: December 20, 2011


Often cancer is an invisible disease.  It attacks the blood or internal organs, making patients gravely ill, but leaving their outward appearance unchanged. Fifteen-year-old Carla’s situation was different.

She was walking down the steps at home when her leg suddenly gave way.  Her mother, Clara, knew something was wrong when her doctor didn’t even ask for an x-ray.  Instead the family was sent straight to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where they learned Carla had bone cancer known as  osteosarcoma.  To cure the cancer growing inside the femur bone in her leg, doctors would have to amputate her leg.

For anyone this would be difficult to accept, but for vibrant young high school student like Carla, who loves to dance, it is unimaginable. Still, Carla was brave.  “The leg has to go,” she said. 

The knowledge that she would be losing part of her leg was hard enough, but the reality of life without it was even more difficult.  She imagined a prosthetic leg that would look much like her real leg.  Instead she woke to find a metal rod with a foot attached.  As if cancer was not hard enough for the teen to cope with, Carla now had to face the new physical and emotional challenges of adjusting to life with a prosthetic leg—and one that to her and her family seemed subpar.
The medical care at Johns Hopkins had been excellent, and the family was thankful for that.  Fitting Carla with an appropriate prosthetic was another matter.  To return to the person she had been before the cancer—before cancer took her leg—she needed a better prosthetic leg. 

Carla’s mother Clara was serving in the military and decided to take Carla to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Hospital.  With the country at war, the military had become an expert in prosthetics.  It turns out that one of the military’s collaborators in improving prosthetics was engineers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL).

In 2009, the APL was awarded a $30.4 million contract under the Defense Advanced Projects Agency Revolutionizing Prosthetics Program, an ambitious effort to provide the most advanced medical and rehabilitative technologies for military personnel injured in the line of duty. Among their projects is a next-generation mechanical arm that mimics the properties and sensory perception of the real thing.

Clara told the staff at Walter Reed, “I need my daughter to have what the soldiers have.”

Carla still had difficult challenges to face.  The loss of Carla’s limb made her a visible representation of illness. When she returned to school she faced teasing by a few mean-spirited students.    However, over time things began to change.  With the help of her new, state-of-the-art prosthetic and the doctors at Walter Reed, Carla began to walk easily and fluidly, without pain.  The real turnaround, however, came the following summer when Carla decided to attend Amputee Coalition of America’s (ACA) youth camp. 

Carla remembers smiling when she arrived at the camp.  “I realized I wasn’t the only one going through this.  There were kids missing one leg, two legs, and arms. They were amazing people,” Carla says. “I wanted to be amazing, too.”

Carla rediscovered herself.  “I found I could do anything I wanted. I could be the person I was before I got sick.”  Carla, a beautiful young woman with bright eyes and a warm personality, is quick to smile, even when recounting the difficult details of her battle with cancer. “I learned I was normal,” she says.  I didn’t care what people thought about my leg anymore. I was wearing skirts and shorts. I felt like a million bucks.”

Since then, Carla has faced and beaten a recurrence of her cancer.  She is a patient ambassador for the Kimmel Cancer Center, a volunteer at Walter Reed, and a counselor at the ACA camp. She graduated from the Community College in Baltimore County and has registered for the spring semester in Towson University in Maryland to pursue a career in veterinary medicine. 

 “When I look forward in life,” Carla says, “I see myself as a person who can take chances, who can become a leader, who can understand what people are going through, because I’ve been through a difficult situation. People with prosthetics should know they don’t have to feel limited in any way.  They can run, dance, ride a bike, and wear heels,” says Carla.   “I wanted to deal with cancer, to be a cancer survivor, and move on with my life.  I’ll never forget what happened, but I won’t let it affect the person I become. Sometimes,” she says, “I forget I have a prosthetic.” 

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