Click the “play” button on the image above to watch a short film about Ella Lincoln and the process of getting a new custom-made prosthetic running leg.
Ella Lincoln began wearing a prosthetic leg when she was barely a year old, but she didn’t find out what it felt like to truly run until she was nine. That was the year her family discovered Amputee Blade Runners (ABR), a nonprofit that gives free custom prosthetic running legs to people with lower limb differences.
“They changed my life,” Ella said. “I can choose whoever I want to be, and no one can tell me I can’t do something.”
Since it was founded in 2011, the organization has helped more than 300 people in 40 states across the country, and 67 percent of their clients are children. Every time a child grows out of one prosthetic limb, the organization provides them with a new device, at least until they reach adulthood.
“It really does not matter the reason that someone has lost their leg, how many legs they have lost, and at what level,” said Joshua Southards, executive director of ABR. “We are really trying to make an impact for each and every one of those people.”
Now 13, Ella recently received her fifth leg from ABR. In September, she and her parents, Tracey and Kevin Lincoln, traveled from their home in Kentucky to Nashville, Tennessee, so the prosthetic professionals at ABR could fit her for a new leg. While the process of building a new prosthetic can take weeks, ABR condenses the process into several days to help minimize expenses and travel time for the families they serve. They also believe it’s important for those who wear the legs every day to observe and participate in the process.
“There is no magic, there’s no fairy dust, there are no rainbows and unicorns behind anything that we’re doing. This really is just passion and hard work,” Southards said. “We want people to see how it works and join in when they are able, because we believe it empowers them to understand their prosthetic leg differently, and perhaps ask some questions that they might not otherwise ask.”
Ella Lincoln, wearing her new prosthetic leg from Amputee Blade Runners, and her mother, Tracey Lincoln, stand in the kitchen of their home in Fairdale, Kentucky. Ella outgrew her old running leg, and the family’s annual trip to Nashville to get a new one was delayed by several months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She had to use crutches in the meantime, and missed wearing a blade. While the running blade is detachable, and Ella also has an artificial foot she can use if she needs to wear a shoe, she almost never does. “I like wearing the blade more because it’s bouncy and you can run faster,” Ella said. “You can do more things.” [Photo by Jim Tuttle]
Ella was born with a partially formed lower right leg, caused by Amniotic Band Syndrome. After months of long hospital stays, surgery, and consultations with specialists around the country, Ella’s parents made the difficult decision to have her leg amputated through the knee. Here, she holds up her first prosthetic leg, which she started wearing when she was barely a year old. She’s had numerous devices since then. For the past five years, all of her prosthetics have been running blades from ABR. [Photo by Jim Tuttle]
Nick Gambill (right), director of fabrication at Amputee Blade Runners, holds a clear plastic test socket for Ella to try on during the fitting process for her new leg. The socket was made using a cast of Ella’s residual limb, and it helps ensure a precise fit. The prosthetics ABR creates are a type called “skin fit,” because they conform directly to the wearer’s body and actually create suction, which keeps them attached until they’re released using an air valve. [Photo by Jim Tuttle]
Aaron Fitzsimmons, co-founder of Amputee Blade Runners and a certified prosthetist, examine’s Ella’s residual limb. Before her family discovered ABR, Ella wore a more traditional type of prosthetic that’s less form-fitting and uses straps and gel liners to attach. Fitzsimmons said he prefers skin-fit prosthetics, especially for children and athletes, because they promote healthy bone growth in the residual limb, they’re lighter and more comfortable, and they allow the wearer to be more active without the prosthetic falling off. [Photo by Jim Tuttle]
Gambill uses a heat gun on a melted plastic shell during the process of making a new prosthetic socket for Ella. While the process of making this type of prosthetic can be more time- and labor-intensive, it’s more cost-effective for recipients and their families because gel liners are expensive and have to be replaced twice a year. “On average, our cost is about $3,500 to take care of a new person,” Joshua Southards, executive director of ABR, said. “We try not to look at things based on how many devices we would need to provide — how many knees or blades or anything like that. We just try to look and say, can we help this person? If so, let’s try to help them.” [Photo by Jim Tuttle]
Gambill checks the running blade and knee attached to Ella’s new prosthetic leg socket. Ella said her mobility has improved dramatically since she started wearing a blade, but in many cases, these types of devices are not covered by insurance because they’re not considered “medically necessary.” Southards said this has a lot to do with demographics, because about 80 percent of amputations in the U.S. are performed on older people with diabetes or vascular diseases. “So a running leg is probably not going to be a beneficial thing for them,” he said. [Photo by Jim Tuttle]
Ella hugs Gambill as she and her family get ready to leave his fabrication shop in Nashville at the end of the leg-making process. “Relationships are a big thing with me,” Gambill said, “and so when I get to spend time with the people I’m making legs for, it just kind of adds to that. Hopefully I’m able to make an impact on their lives that’s lasting, something they can pass forward to somebody else.” [Photo by Jim Tuttle]
Ella unboxes her new leg, freshly painted based on her own design by a Nashville airbrush artist. Ella is an aspiring artist herself, and says she enjoys expressing herself through the uniqueness of her prosthetic. “You may think, ‘Well, obviously amputees want their prosthetic to look as human as possible, make it look like skin, cover it,” said Ella’s father, Kevin Lincoln. “She’s never wanted that. She wants it bright and bold and out there because it’s her personality on a piece of equipment.” [Photo by Jim Tuttle]
Ella’s father sorts through tools and extra components in what the family calls “the leg drawer.” The new leg needed a few minor adjustments after Ella tried it on for the first time, and Lincoln was able to take care of it quickly because the professionals at ABR teach all leg recipients and families to keep tools and components handy and how to make adjustments and minor repairs. “They told us, it’s not feasible for you to come back here every time you need to fix this, so you need to know how to fix this,” he said. “They’ve given us functionality in our lives.” [Photo by Jim Tuttle]
Since she received her first leg from ABR, Ella has tried jujitsu, rock climbing, tennis, swimming, field hockey, and basketball, the main sport she’s been playing most recently on her school’s team. “They gave me a new life, a new story,” Ella said of ABR. “I’ve learned how to run, I learned how to do new things since they gave me a new leg.” [Photo by Jim Tuttle]
Top photo: Ella and the family dog, Rey, sit beside a row of her old prosthetic leg sockets, lined up on the floor in chronological order. [Photo by Jim Tuttle]