WAPATO, Wash. — Like most children, Alicia Guerrero wanted to learn how to swim in order to better enjoy hot summer days.
But learning to swim presented a challenge for the 10-year-old — she lost her left leg from the knee down in a lawn mower accident when she was 2.
That problem may now have been solved thanks to “Galaxy,” the nickname Alicia has given to her purple, star-covered prosthetic swimming leg. Designed like a flipper, but capable of being walked on, the plastic prosthesis is the brainchild and longtime dream of Yakima prosthetist Larry Jensen.
For Alicia, it was another opportunity to show her versatility amid adversity. She has participated in a number of activities, such as ballet, gymnastics and basketball. Swimming, however, was one activity she was hesitant to try.
“She was always hanging on to the side,” said her mom, Bernadine Guerrero. “She didn’t feel confident because she only had the one leg and couldn’t keep her balance in the pool.” Also contributing to her lack of confidence was a fear of slipping on the pool shower floor when she was younger and playful teasing from her brothers.
Jensen, a prosthetist and orthotist for Yakima Orthotics & Prosthetics, had long thought about building such a prototype. He drew inspiration from his own ideas as well as other produced prostheses.
“Patients frequently ask about swim legs because they want to go to the pool, they have their own pool and they want to go swimming,” said the 53-year-old Jensen, who returned to his hometown of Yakima in 2002 after having worked in the East Coast for several years. “Those questions kind of get you started in thinking how do you do it.”
Jensen said he wanted something that was light, but not buoyant. Another issue: he wanted it to be affordable. Most insurance providers do not cover swimming legs. A conventional prosthesis costs from $10,000 to $40,000; swimming prostheses like his would cost from $500 to $1,500, he said. The expense of another prosthesis tends to put the brakes on patients inquiring more about a swimming-specific leg, he said.
But a few weeks ago, Alicia and her father came in for adjustments for her prosthetic leg and the topic of Alicia wanting to swim came up. She was just about to start swimming lessons and they knew it would be a challenge for her.
Sensing an opportunity, Jensen talked with them and suggested he could help her by building a swimming leg prototype. The unexpected news: The prosthesis would be free of charge because it was his first and a prototype. Jensen needed approval, though, from his manager as well as Alicia’s family and doctor.
“There was nothing stopping us to do it,” Jensen said. “My schedule was flexible, her schedule was flexible, her family was willing. We took our chance and went ahead with this.
“Once everybody said yes, then we were free to fly with the idea.”
The leg is made of polypropylene and copolymer — plastics that are typically used for leg braces. Prostheses can be made using a number of other different materials, such as titanium, aluminum and stainless steel. A pattern of stars and galaxies picked out by Alicia was melted onto the plastic.
It is also a fixed model. Unlike other prostheses where the individual can change the angle of the fins, the flipper points straight down and is intended for better propulsion through the water, said Jensen.
In addition to swimming, Alicia’s new leg can also be used for walking, with a tread attached to the base. Jensen said this would serve well on swimming decks, climbing steps to get to a water slide and not slipping on shower floors.
Within hours of receiving the leg, Alicia was using it in the water. For the last three weeks of her swim class, she finally had something that would help her swim like everybody else.
“It was good trying it for the first time,” said Alicia, who learned the breaststroke, to hold her breath underwater, float on her back and other skills. “But my mom didn’t let me walk on it that much.”
Her mother quickly saw a change in Alicia’s attitude toward the water. She moved around the pool rather than staying on the corner, learned new techniques, gained more confidence; in short she “accomplished a lot in a short time” said Bernadine Guerrero.
“I think she sees that now she has that ability like everybody else,” she said. “ ‘They have two legs, now I have two legs and I can keep up with the rest of them.’ ”
Alicia said she was also happy for Jensen, who much like her desire to swim, had wanted a chance to design and build the leg.
“He wanted to do his dream and I guess he gave it to us for free because I wanted to swim and he wanted to make a leg like that,” she said.