New leg, and new outlook

By February 24, 2011

FAIRFIELD — When Samson Ngutwa, 37, met certified prosthetist orthoticist Michael Bright, the Fairfield practitioner could see bone peeking through the raw and irritated skin on the side of Ngutwa’s left knee.

The prosthetic leg that Ngutwa had purchased in his native country of Malawi was rubbing the area raw at the spot on his upper leg, which was amputated at the knee after a bus accident in 1999.

Ngutwa, a UC Davis Humphrey Fellowship Program scholar, is devoted to finding ways to turn the farming in his predominantly agricultural country into a profitable and sustainable enterprise.

However, after arriving in Davis in September 2010, Ngutwa’s left leg became a painful and sometimes debilitating obstacle to his participation in the program.

His focus on agriculture means he gets involved in field work — literally.

The walking taxed him, and at times, Ngutwa said, prevented him from joining his fellow scholars for site visits.

After hearing about Ngutwa’s situation through another patient, Bright decided to outfit him with a new leg that would allow him to become nearly as mobile as he had been before the accident.

“Samson’s from a different place, but our background isn’t actually that different. He’s a student, I’ve been a student. He has a family, young kids and I do, too,” said Bright, who runs the Fairfield office of North Bay Prosthetics & Orthotics. “It was nice to have the opportunity to help someone out and Samson’s just a really nice young man.”

Ngutwa’s original prosthetic was held up by a leather belt and had a simplistic knee joint that made walking a dicey proposition.

Compensating for the lack of stability, Ngutwa adopted an awkward gait in which he swung his leg out in a half-circle to slow his stride and better defend against falling, which occurred frequently, he said.

Working with a company that supplies most of the parts his clinic uses, Bright fashioned a new leg for Ngutwa that uses vacuum suction to attach the prosthetic to his stump and features a more maneuverable knee that allows him to walk without fear of falling.

The new prosthetic makes walking feel almost like it did before the accident, Ngutwa said.

“It’s like starting all over again,” he said. “I have no pain whatsoever. It’s wonderful.”

It’s possible that within a week or two, he may be able to walk without a cane for the first time in years, Ngutwa said.

“It has been amazing for me,” he said. “I’m more stable than ever before.”

The other prosthetic not only caused him pain, it also made him constantly worried and unable to concentrate on his studies, Ngutwa said.

“I wish I had this since the beginning of the program,” he said. “It would have been different.”

When he returns to Malawi, Ngutwa said he plans to use what he learned in Davis and the connections he made in the U.S. to help the poorest people in his country.

“It will require a lot of walking in the villages, you know. … I think (the prosthetic) will be even more useful in Malawi than here,” he said. “I think it’s something which will help me for many, many years.”

Ngutwa said he is overwhelmingly grateful to Bright and others who contributed to getting him a new leg at no cost. He said he would not have been able to afford one on his own and his insurance would not pay the cost for a new prosthetic because his amputation is considered a pre-existing condition.

“It’s something which has made my life very comfortable now,” he said. “I am looking forward to all these projects because I can be more active now.”

— Reach Sarah de Crescenzo at [email protected]

Sarah de Crescenzo

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