Bryan Lott was interviewing for a job in Durango when he visited 4Corners Riversports for a paddleboard part. There, he met co-owner Tony Miely, and the conversation turned to prosthetics.
It might be rude in some circumstances to start chatting about someone’s missing appendage on first meeting, but in this case, no one was offended.
The chance encounter three years ago has proved mutually beneficial.
Miely gained access to better technology and a confidant in fixing issues with prosthetics for his missing hand. As a certified prosthetist, Lott got a chance to share his expertise and to broaden his own technical skills while dealing with Miely’s challenges.
It also ultimately gave Lott, who moved here from Santa Fe, a bigger idea. The prosthetic industry is geared toward basic functionality, mainly because that is where the biggest market is. Could Durango – an active, adventure-oriented town if there is one – be a destination for people who need prosthetics and aren’t ready to toss aside their love for recreational or even extreme sports?
Miely began kayaking in 1991 when, as a Colorado State University student, he spent $400 for some used gear at a garage sale and headed for the Poudre River canyon. (Note to beginning kaykers: Don’t do what Miely did, which was to kayak a serious river before later learning how to roll in a lake.)
He moved to Durango in 1999 and bought into 4Corners a few years after that. He and Andy Corra are now the two owners.
Miely was a passenger on a side-by-side all-terrain vehicle on Sept. 18, 2009, near Navajo Lake when the ATV rolled. The roll bar he was holding landed on his right hand and crushed it.
He was flown immediately to Denver, but the fingers and the top part of his hand couldn’t be saved.
Miely wasn’t ready to stop kayaking. With some will and ingenuity, he returned to paddling six months later. But every time he had a technical issue with a prosthetic, it meant a trip to Denver.
So when Lott took the Durango job and moved here to open up a local branch of Hanger Clinic, a prosthetic and orthotics company with offices nationwide, it was an opportunity for Miely to improve his collection.
Lott recalls Miely coming to his Centennial Center office with a box of prosthetics, some that worked and some that didn’t. It included a kayak hand, a mountain bike hand, a lawn-mowing hand, a cross country skiing hand and more.
“We just started going down his list of what he wanted to change about each one,” Lott said during a joint interview with Miely on June 26 at Santa Rita Park.
A little side story here on Hanger, just because it’s so interesting, if not wholly pertinent. The company spawned from the Civil War, which, while killing and maiming a lot of people, also instigated huge advances in prosthetic technology.
James Edward Hanger, an 18-year-old engineering student, was a Confederate soldier on guard duty June 3, 1861, when a cannonball smashed into his leg, leaving him an above-knee amputee. Assuming the story on the Hanger Inc. website is accurate, Hanger, using barrel staves, created a double-jointed (knee and ankle) prosthetic to replace the bulky peg leg standard at the time.
Hanger, the first documented amputee of the war, soon started his own company in Richmond, Virginia. The four-year-long war assured him plenty of customers.
But back to our story:
“It’s been really nice having somewhere locally to go to get adjustments made or things worked on or run ideas by Bryan: ‘Hey, do you think this would work?’” Miely said.
For kayaking, Miely uses small paddles that strap to his hands; he found that to be safer than a regular paddle. The small paddles are used by many kayakers where the water is relatively warm, such as the southeastern U.S. But here, the water’s colder, so Miely uses neoprene for added insulation.
Lott helped Miely rig a right-hand paddle that stays snug. In an emergency, the left-hand paddle will slip off quickly and allow him to rapidly exit the boat.
Mountain biking was a little trickier. Miely tried a Mert’s Hand. It’s basically a ball, which mounts on a prosthetic hand or arm, that attaches to a socket mounted on a handlebar. It releases like a ski binding or clipless pedal, allowing the user to click the arm securely into place, yet release during a crash.
The hand’s extra length, however, effectively made Miely’s right arm about 6 inches longer than his left. It was uncomfortable to use. So Lott began communicating with Mert Lawwill, the inventor of Mert’s Hand, to see if there might be a fix.
The name Lawwill may ring a bell. He lived in Durango in the late 1990s and directed the downhill race team for Yeti mountain bikes. In 2000, when he first considered mass producing Mert’s Hand, companies told him not to waste his time, that the demand was nonexistent. Lawwill ignored that advice and now has about 300 in use. For Miely, he redesigned it to fit on the palm of the hand.
“I had to make up a special adapter for him that I had not made before,” Lawwill said during a phone interview from Tiburon, California, where he now lives.
Thanks to Lott’s urging, Joe Kusar of Durango also uses the smaller Mert’s Hand. It allowed the 39-year-old to recently take up mountain biking, which he does with his twin 7-year-old boys.
“It opened up a whole new world,” Kusar said. “It’s pretty sweet to be able to access that part of Durango.”
Lawwill is currently designing an electronic arm that uses an accelerometer to sense when the arm needs to go rigid for braking purposes.
“There’s nothing more satisfying than taking somebody who says they can’t do something and changing it around so they can,” Lawwill said.
Lott, whose father is a below-the-knee amputee and an avid golfer, is anxious to help other amputees craving an adventure sports fix. It’s not easy to find a prosthetic business that specializes in that niche. He’s wondering if Durango could be a sort of mecca.
“It just works well to try to offer (Durango) as a destination for athletic amputees to hopefully come here,” Lott said. “It just presents a great place to work on these skills.”
Miely donned his paddles in preparation for a lunchtime playboat session at Whitewater Park. To demonstrate how snug it is on the arm, Lott yanked on and rotated the right-hand paddle.
Then Miely headed for Corner Pocket. He warmed up there, then floated down to Ponderosa, where he practiced spins and flips and made them look routine. What he says about his paddling is music to Lott’s ears, although perhaps, he acknowledges, not always to wife Tina Miely’s ears.
“I’m paddling the same stuff I was before I lost my hand,” the 41-year-old Miely said. “Some would argue I’m paddling harder stuff.”
firstname.lastname@example.org. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.