How Do You Reinvent Yourself After a Near-Death Experience?

Sep 19, 2014
Originally published on May 6, 2015 2:06 pm

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Transformation

About Hugh Herr's Talk

Hugh Herr lost both legs in a climbing accident 30 years ago. Now, as the head of the MIT Media Lab's Biomechatronics group, he's building the next generation of bionic limbs.

About Hugh Herr

Hugh Herr heads the Biomechatronics research group at the MIT Media Lab, creating bionic limbs that emulate natural limbs.

In 2011 TIME magazine coined Herr the "Leader of the Bionic Age" due to his work in the field of biomechatronics–technology that marries human physiology with electromechanics.

Herr's research group has developed gait-adaptive knee prostheses for amputees and ankle-foot exoskeletons. He also designed his own bionic legs, the world's first bionic foot-and-calf system, called the BiOM.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

About 30 years ago on a cold January day, Hugh Herr and a friend were climbing Mount Washington in New Hampshire. They had made it up a difficult part of the climb when very suddenly the light snowfall turned into something far more intense.

HUGH HERR: And, you know, a blizzard's conditions set in; we got to the top of this ice face which is about 800 feet, and we made the mistake of continuing towards the summit of the mountain in ever worsening conditions - blizzard conditions.

RAZ: Hugh Herr was an expert climber; one of the top climbers in the U.S. He'd been climbing almost since the day he could walk.

HERR: By the age of 15-16, I was climbing 1000 foot walls, 2000 foot walls, sometimes without a rope. So yes it was a life of adventure when I was a kid.

RAZ: But that day in New Hampshire even Hughes considerable experience didn't matter. He and his fellow climber, Jeff Batzer, were now climbing in whiteout conditions.

HERR: When we hit tree line, we had realized we had gone off course, but at that point the blizzard was so intense that it would have been suicidal to retrace our tracks. The average depth of snow was to the waist, sometimes to the chest. It was very difficult to make progress.

RAZ: Hugh and Jeff were trapped. And for four days, they huddled together in makeshift snow caves just to survive. The frostbite in their legs was so severe, so painful they didn't think they'd make it.

HERR: We were in one of our snow caves; we had given up hope, and we were trying to accelerate the death process because we were in so much pain. And, you know, this person appeared. We first thought we were, you know, seeing things - first thought this person wasn't real. But she was out snowshoeing for the day and came across footprints, seem to be human footprints and followed them to our cave. And we were ultimately rescued by helicopter and taken to Littleton, New Hampshire.

RAZ: So initially they thought that they would be able to save your legs, right?

HERR: I wouldn't go that far. (Laughter) They were - the doctors were willing to attempt it. But in the beginning, they looked like biological legs that were simply black in some areas and swollen, but eventually after a month or two, they no longer looked human. And at that point, you know, mentally, psychologically one, you know, wants to get rid of the legs that really cannot even be labeled as legs anymore.

RAZ: Hugh Herr's transformation would begin the moment his legs were amputated. At a rehab center, he was fitted with these clunky, uncomfortable prosthetic legs, and his doctor warned him that he have a long and hard recovery.

HERR: And I said, you know, I want to return to mountain climbing. I want to ride a bicycle, you know, I said a few such things. And he said very quickly that climbing was out of the question. I might be able to ride a bicycle. And he said I'll be able to drive a car but through the use of hand controls. So I - I was devastated by the conversation. Then I realized he had no idea what climbing was, and so he had no real authority to state that I would or would not be able to climb again.

RAZ: Losing his leg seemed like the ultimate transformation, but the real change in Hugh Herr's life was just beginning. He picks up the story from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

HERR: I didn't view my body as broken. I reasoned that a human being could never be broken. Technology is broken. Technology is inadequate. The simple but powerful idea was a call to arms to advance technology for the elimination of my own disability and ultimately to the disability of others. I began by developing specialized limbs that allowed me to return to the vertical world of rock and ice climbing. I quickly realized that the artificial part of my body is malleable, able to take on any form, any function. A blank slate for which to create perhaps structures that could extend beyond biological capability. I made my height adjustable. I could be as short as five feet or as tall as I'd like. So when I was feeling badly about myself, insecure I would jack my height up.

(LAUGHTER)

HERR: But when I was feeling confident and suave, I would knock my height down a notch just to give the competition a chance.

(LAUGHTER)

HERR: Narrow wedge feet allow me to climb steep, rock fissures where human foot cannot penetrate. And spiked feet the enabled me to climb vertical, ice walls without ever experiencing muscle leg fatigue. Through technological innovation, I returned to my sport stronger and better. Technology had eliminated my disability and allowed me a new climbing prowess.

And as he returned to competitive climbing using prosthetic legs that he designed himself, Hugh got more and more interested in how to make those legs better.

HERR: So I invented this prosthetic foot made of polyethylene blades, coated with sticky climbing rubber. And you can put the blade into the crack and rotate the leg and then wedge it and then extend the leg and make progress up the mountain. So that was a lot of fun. But people, of course, accuse me of cheating. (Laughter) I just said you can - you know, you're free - completely free to amputate your own legs and achieve the same competitive advantage. But no took me up on it.

RAZ: How did you take that leap from being told that you would not be able to do this definitively to telling yourself I'm going to do this?

HERR: Perhaps I'm stubborn.

(LAUGHTER)

HERR: You know, some people view an artificial limb as something that's depressing, the source of disability. I viewed it as a source of adventure - of potential, because I realized that through innovation - through design that artificial part of my body could be anything I wanted.

RAZ: So if losing his legs was the first transformation, and then designing his own prostatic legs was the second, he was about to undergo the third and possibly most profound transformation yet. That story in a moment. I'm Guy Raz and you're listening to TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(MUSIC)

RAZ: It's the TED radio hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, transformation, stories and ideas about a life completely changed by choice, or in the case the case of Hugh Herr, by circumstance. So we were just hearing about how Hugh lost his legs in a rock climbing accident and before it happened he wasn't particularly interested in math or science or technology. What he really wanted to be was the best rock climber in the world.

HERR: But then after the accident, when I experienced how hideous and pathetic and unsophisticated prosthetic technology was at the time - I became interested in design. I designed my climbing limbs and I was successful at that endeavor. And it kind of drove me towards studying mathematics and physics and later engineering. And it turns out I just - I loved it. I had an absolute passion for those topics.

RAZ: So as he worked to improve and perfect his own prosthetics, Hugh decided to pursue mechanical engineering and then later a Ph.D. in biophysics. And he became convinced that he could transform other people, which is what he does today. Hugh leads a team of scientists at MIT working to solve one simple problem...

HERR: In the world of design we have no idea how to attach synthetic structures to our bodies in a healthy comfortable way. The example of shoes giving us blisters - isn't it extraordinary? One of the most mature oldest devices in the human timeline the shoe we still don't understand how to design the damn thing. So every device that attaches to our body, you know, women with bras, braces, prosthesis like I wear, can be very, very uncomfortable. And right now if you ask a hundred persons with leg amputation, what's the number one problem you want solved about your artificial limb about all 100 would say it hurts. You know, please fix that.

RAZ: So Hugh, he set out to do just that.

(SOUNDBITE TO ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, my God.

RAZ: The woman on this recording is, for the first time, trying out a pair of bionic legs designed by Hugh Herr and his team at MIT.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh my God I can't believe it.

RAZ: She can now walk up and down stairs.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's just like I've got a real leg.

RAZ: There's no handrail, she's not using a cane, no help from anyone because inside her legs are 12 tiny sensors that feed right into microcomputers.

HERR: Very small computers - he surface area roughly of a fingernail.

RAZ: And those computers run algorithms that decide how to tweak tiny motors in each leg. Which control...

HERR: How the limb should move, how it should stiffen, how it should power itself.

RAZ: He wears a pair himself. And he says these prosthetic legs - with power, with moving parts, designed to mimic the force of normal muscles could transform life for disabled people of all kinds.

(SOUNDBITE TO ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HERR: Now turn around and do the same thing walking up. Walk up - get on your heel to toe like you would normal walk on level ground. Try to walk right up the hill.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh my God.

HERR: Pushing you up?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes. It's - I'm not even - I can't even describe it.

HERR: It's pushing you right up.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You guys just don't know what it's like not to have that.

RAZ: It's amazing 'cause - it's almost like this kind of drove you to reimagine you were, who you are, who you were going to be and what this disability was going to mean. It's almost like you, kind of, turned it into something - into something that made you better and stronger.

HERR: My new body with biological leg amputations is not necessarily a disability - right? The disability comes in if the technology is inadequate. If the technology is very good it's simply a condition but it's not a disability. So that's the world that I envisioned and the world that I'm working towards technologically.

(SOUNDBITE TO TED TALK)

HERR: Over half of the worlds' population suffers from some sort of cognitive, emotional, sensory or motor condition. And because of poor technology, too often conditions result in disability and a poor quality of life. Basic levels of physiological function should be a part of our human rights. Every person should have the right to live life without disability if they so choose, the right to live life without severe depression, the right to see a loved one in the case of the seeing impaired, or the right to walk or to dance in the case of limb paralysis or limb amputation. As a society we can achieve these human rights if we accept the proposition that humans are not disabled. A person can never be broken. Our built environment, our technologies are broken and disabled. We the people need not accept our limitations but can transcend disability, through technological innovation. Indeed through fundamental advances in bionics in this century, we will set the technological foundation for an enhanced human experience and we will end disability.

RAZ: What do you think it is that allowed you to almost regenerate? To, kind of, accept - and then to embrace a transformation that you didn't ask for?

HERR: I mean, I think at the core is a thing called creativity. But a key to being creative is imagining what hasn't happened yet. Imagining what the future can be and believing in that dream so wholeheartedly that you inspire yourself and the world to actually transfer dreams into physical objects, into technology.

RAZ: Hugh Herr runs the Center for Extreme Bionics at MIT. To see his talk and the amazing work they do go to ted.com. Our show today, ideas and stories about transformation, the people who look at their lives and say I'm going to change this one thing or maybe everything. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.