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His Work Helps Disabled Keep Active : Prosthetics: After losing his lower left leg in 1976, Albert Rappoport decided to develop devices that would help amputees compete athletically.

June 24, 1993|KIRBY LEE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA MONICA — Screwdrivers, wrenches, nuts and bolts lie scattered among the drill press, lathe, sewing machine and band saw in Albert Rappoport's workshop in the back of his office on Santa Monica Boulevard.

"This is where we do most of our adjustments," said Rappoport, the director of Performance Prosthetics, a center that specializes in artificial limbs for disabled athletes.

Rappoport, 33, has the aid of three full-time technicians and another "laboratory" down the block.

"When you start a new business, you're the president, the secretary and the janitor," Rappoport said. "As you grow, you get some help. I've always enjoyed building things and working with my hands."

Rappoport played football and wrestled at Santa Monica High before losing his lower left leg to bone cancer the summer before his junior year in 1976. He opted for a career in prosthetics because of his frustration with the lack of prosthetic devices available for the disabled.

"It was painful to run, and you couldn't go swimming with your leg because it was made of wood," Rappoport said. "Man had been on the moon, but the only technology available for amputees was wooden feet and straps. I felt I could build a better leg myself."

Such exploration helped lead to the development of the Activankle in 1991 and the Activsleeve two years earlier.

The Activankle is a plastic ankle that connects prosthetic legs and feet. Unlike most other prosthetic ankles, which have only fixed settings, the Activankle allows adjustment from the walking position to an extended position for swimming or a free-flexing setting for skiing or rowing.

The Activsleeve, a rubber sleeve suspension system for below-the-knee amputees, uses suction to attach an artificial limb as an alternative to belts or straps and allows greater range of motion. A ribbed design allows the sleeve to create a seal around the thigh and prevents water from entering the socket when swimming or showering.

Rappoport studied agriculture at Cal State Chico before changing his major to adaptive physical education. He obtained a master's degree at USC and graduated from the Prosthetic-Orthotic Education Program at the UCLA School of Medicine.

In 1991, he co-authored the book "Physical Fitness: A Guide for Individuals with Lower Limb Loss," which is published and distributed at no cost by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Rappoport has often had to rely on ingenuity to meet the demands of his patients at Performance Prosthetics.

"You start reading a lot about materials and asking engineers about applications," Rappoport said.

Larry Yohn, 53, an instructor at Perris Valley Skydiving School who lost a leg in a motorcycle accident in 1967, uses a "pogo peg leg" created by Rappoport for sky diving.

After several variations, the current model features a shock-absorbing spring and a lacrosse ball at its tip for landings. Although Yohn has a conventional prosthesis, he uses the pogo leg for motorcycle riding and everyday use. It also has been modified to allow for adjustable length for walking barefoot or with variable-height shoes.

"I smashed so many peg legs and had to have them rebuilt so many times, I used to jump without one," said Yohn, who first experimented with the idea of a peg leg in 1970. "(Rappoport) researched the problem and was very receptive to its design. It's really superior to anything else. It's functional for basketball or hiking."

Jim MacLaren, 30, of Manhattan Beach, a former football player whose lower left leg was crushed and amputated after he was struck by a bus while riding a motorcycle in 1985, credits his achievements as a triathlete and marathoner to a prosthesis developed by Rappoport. MacLaren's prosthesis utilizes an energy-returning flex foot, Activankle and Activsleeve.

MacLaren completed this year's Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii, consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, 110-mile-bike ride and 26.2-mile marathon, in less than 11 hours. His time is nearly four hours faster than the previous amputee record-holder. MacLaren has also run a marathon under 3:20.

Jerry Weichman, a senior kicker at Santa Monica High who was born without a right foot, kicks with a prosthetic leg that attaches below the knee with a specially designed brace created by Rappoport. Weichman has granted approval to compete by the Southern Section.

Weichman has kicked a 55-yard field goal with the prothesis in practice and has aspirations of playing in college. The rigors of football and frequent breakage necessitated the inclusion of a foot for the 165-pound Weichman that was intended for a 285-pound person.

"His legs are a lot lighter than anything I've had before," Weichman said. "His stuff is more modern and easier to make adjustments to kick."

Rappoport, who also distributes back braces, orthotics and splints, fabricates a prostheses at an average cost of $10,000. Fitting, construction and adjustments for a prosthesis take about a week.

"If we had to, we probably could pump one out in a day," Rappoport said.

There have been occasions when that has been necessary, particularly when U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska comes to town for a business meeting. Kerrey, 49, a below-the-knee amputee who lost his right leg during the Vietnam War, runs five miles a day with a prosthesis fitted by Rappoport.

"He's a real craftsman," Kerrey said. "I could train for a marathon if I had the time with the leg he's crafted. I don't give him as much time as I should, but he's accommodating."

It's an objective that has become Rappoport's primary aim.

"I try to meet the needs of the customer," Rappoport said. "If you do a good job, you've likely got a patient for life."

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