Ellensburg woman first civilian in Northwest to get new bionic leg

ELLENSBURG, Wash. -- When Ali McWeeny's PE students walked in for their first day of Badminton at Central Washington University, they didn't know what to expect.

Would she teach by talking - or by playing?

"Seeing her, she's actually diving and making plays," said Marc Garza. "No one expects it, so it's good."

The first shock comes from seeing McWeeny's prosthesis. She lost her left leg in a boating accident three years ago. But the real shocker -- that's from seeing her jump, dive, run and shuffle across the floor.

Her bionic leg has six sensors that collect information 100 times a second, anticipating what she is about to do and what type of support she'll need.

Earlier versions of these high-tech microprocessor knees broke under her rigorous demands.

"They just couldn't keep up with me and would glitch and throw error messages all over the place," McWeeny said. "I moved too quickly, I pivoted too much. I was running them through stuff they weren't built to do."

Minneapolis-based Ottobock developed McWeeny's leg, called the Genium Bionic Prosthetic System. Development started when the military asked for a leg that would help injured soldiers return to active duty.

"Things like being able to walk backwards if they needed to move somebody out of a dangerous situation," asid Peter Nohre with Ottobock. "To be in an environment where sand and dirt and water are present, and to be able to withstand that."

War, and injuries in war, are great motivators for medicine. Dr. Doug Smith, a surgeon at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle says we've seen big advances since the Sept. 11 attacks.

"There were unfortunately a lot of young people that got hurt, but also there was a lot of young people wanting improved stuff," Smith said. "Wanting improved technology, equipment or surgical techniques. So all that came together and moved a whole bunch of stuff forward."

That magic combination of need, money and desire led to research, development and results.

"It probably happened three years, five years, even seven years faster than it would have had there not been the military and the conflict pushing it forward," Smith said.

McWeeny is the first civilian in our area to get the Genium. While it helps her push her physical limits, the key change in her life is more emotional.

"The biggest thing for me is to be able to have the confidence to lift my head up and take my eyes off the ground and experience life," she said.

Ali doesn't just experience life. She grabs it and runs with it.

"I don't see anything holding her back," said Hillary Franks, McWeeny's friend. "Other than... actually nothing. I don't see anything holding her back."

Join us on Christmas at 6:30 when the KOMO Problem Solvers present "Healing our Heroes." KOMO 4's Molly Shen will take you from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to Madigan Army Medical Center. You'll see stories of soldiers overcoming devastating injuries and meet the people devoted to helping them recover. Find out about the latest techniques to treat pain and how advances in military medicine also help civilians.