Former Winnipegger says 'bionic' leg almost like the real thing

For two decades, Paul Tolaini lived with pain, pressure sores and broken skin; the side-effects of using a traditional prosthetic leg after he lost his in a motorcycle accident in Winnipeg in 1992.

For the price of a new SUV, Paul Tolaini may feel like he has his biological leg back

Former Winnipegger, Paul Tolaini, travelled to Australia for a pioneering surgery which implanted a titanium leg into his shin bone. The procedure is reported to have improved the quality of life for amputees. (Supplied by Paul Tolaini )
For two decades, Paul Tolaini lived with pain, pressure sores and broken skin; the side-effects of using a traditional prosthetic leg after he lost his in a motorcycle accident in Winnipeg in 1992.
Scan of a patient with a titanium implant provided by Munjed Al Muderis, a Sydney, Australia-based orthopedic surgeon. (Osseointegration Group of Australia)

But that all changed last month. 

Tolaini has put aside his old prosthetic leg and can walk, with crutches, using a new titanium implant.

"The first few steps were … remarkable. You know having that solid, direct connection to the ground, no socket [prosthetic] needed, it was very emotional," he told CBC's Marcy Markusa host of Information Radio.

At 44 years old, Tolaini is one of the few people in Canada who has undergone surgery for a titanium leg implant. The medical term is osseointegration. In other words, allowing the bone to integrate with the artificial limb.

"I'm a below-knee amputee so they place (the implant) into the tibia bone or shin bone … and in my case my prosthetic foot is attached directly to the bone through that implant," he said.

Bionic maybe, but titanium hardly futuristic 

Tolaini said he has heard the jokes about Terminator or the Six Million Dollar Man, but he says the titanium technology is in fact decades old. It is already used in dental implants as well as artificial hips and knees.

"Titanium has a unique natural ability. Bone will grow into it," he said. 

And Tolaini says, for roughly the price of a Jeep Grand Cherokee he has "massively" improved his quality of life.

According to the Osseointegration Group of Australia, contact with the ground is the procedure's key benefit. It offers amputees greater stability and minimizes energy exerted to walk. The effects can be especially beneficial to bilateral amputees: people who have lost both legs.

Hopes new leg will feel like the original

Tolaini says he made the decision to travel to Australia for the procedure after hearing from other amputees who had "life changing" results. Still, it was scary finally agreeing to go ahead with the surgery, he said.

"You're comfortable with what you know and I think as a person you have to occasionally step out of your comfort zone in order to grow," he said.

The big test for Tolaini is whether the implant eventually feels like he has his biological leg back, a sensation other patients told him they experienced.

Tolaini told Marcy he cannot know for sure until he is able to put the full weight of his body on his new leg without crutches, but so far "it certainly seems that way."

Hear Paul Tolaini's story today at 8:10 a.m. on Information Radio with Marcy Markusa. 89.3FM 990AM. 


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