Heather Abbott took another step toward regaining the life she lived before she lost the portion of her left leg below her knee during the bombings at the Boston Marathon in April thanks to Warwick’s Next Step Bionics & Prosthetics, Inc.
Last week, Abbott, 38, began to use her newest prosthetic leg, a lifelike high-heel prosthesis that features a high-definition silicone cover; the prosthesis was designed to be the mirror image of Abbott’s real leg and the cover matches her skin tone down to any freckles or marks she may have had.
“It was unbelievable,” said Abbott about seeing the leg for the first time.
She pointed out that the silicone cover even has marks mimicking razor burn, the toes point in the same direction her other toes do, and the same number of toes are shown in the peep-toe of her favorite heels as on her other foot. She can even paint the toenails.
“I couldn’t believe how real it looks,” she said.
This is Abbott’s fourth prosthetic leg since April. She has this new high-heel one, which she describes to resemble a “Barbie foot,” a flat-foot one for every day use, a blade for running and a water-proof one for swimming and showering.
Matthew J. Albuquerque, president of Next Step, explained company specialists shaped the new prosthetic to look like Abbott’s leg in August. It was then sent to Dorset, a Great Britain-based company, to complete the complicated process of applying this unique silicone cover. Representatives from that company had come out earlier to match the silicone to Heather’s skin tone.
Abbott, who lives in Newport and recently returned to her job with Raytheon’s human resources department in Portsmouth part-time, has only used the realistic leg a few times, showing friends and family, attending the Boston Red Sox World Series game and visiting nurses at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She says the response has been positive and people really cannot tell which is which.
“It’s been nice to feel that when I look down I have two feet again, and to have nobody realize I don’t has been nice,” said Abbott.
She did point out that the silicone cover was made slightly tanner than her natural skin tone to account for possible tanning in the warmer months.
Saying that she wore heels the majority of the time before the bombing, Abbott wanted the opportunity to wear her favorite shoes again, as well as have a leg that looked like her own. “Before the bombing, I would wear high heels pretty much all the time. I very rarely ever wore flat shoes. I don’t know if my life will get back to that, but I’m going to try,” said Abbott. “I was a professional heel wearer.”
Albuquerque pointed out that Abbott is one of the greatest success stories and has worked incredibly hard to get to the point she is at in only seven months.
“To walk on a prosthesis that has a flat heel takes a certain amount of work and effort and diligence just to walk on a flat heel. She’s done so much in such a short period of time. Usually at this mark, somebody would not be walking on a high-heel prosthesis, but we were able to provide it for her because she has done so well so quickly,” said Albuquerque.
Normally, a high-heel prosthesis is only three inches, but Abbott went through her shoes and found that most of her heels were 4 inches. So that is what she got. Albuquerque said walking on a four-inch high-heel prosthetic is difficult, but Abbott is doing well, likely because she wore heels before.
She also said she is beginning to feel more like herself again thanks to this life-like prosthetic.
“People usually think of me as a tall person even though I’m only 5’5” because I’m usually wearing heels,” said Abbott, adding that while she can wear her favorite pairs of heels and some of her old skirts and dresses, she still isn’t ready to try on all of her old clothes.
“I used to wear shorter shirts. If I did that now, you would see the break where my real leg is and I don’t know if I’m comfortable with that yet.”
Albuquerque said this type of silicone cover is the most realistic available, but it is not common because insurance companies do not always cover the $25,000 price tag (up to $10,000 for the prosthesis, $15,000 for the cover).
“Because there hasn’t been a lot of them, it’s been tough to talk about the benefit of having one,” he said, adding that Heather Mills, the ex-wife of Paul McCartney, was the first to bring this product to light during her time on “Dancing With The Stars.”
“I hope we’re able to do more because having a leg that looks like a leg sounds like something that should be very basic, but it’s not, unfortunately,” he said.
Abbott said thinking that people may not be able to get this realistic prosthesis is “discouraging and scary.”
“When I found out I was going to lose my leg, one of my biggest concerns was what it was going to look like,” recalls Abbott. Then a woman came to see her in the hospital that had this type of cover.
“When I saw her leg and I saw how real it looked and the fact that she could still wear high heels and still wear the clothes she used to wear, that’s what made me know I’d be OK … If insurance were to take that away or deny that to other people, I think that’s really unfortunate.”
Albuquerque hopes sharing Abbott’s story will change things for those who need it.
“Especially for a woman that may have led a lifestyle before that involved wearing skirts as part of their professional attire,” said Albuquerque. “Heather has been a great example of not only the need for it but what comes out of it in a good situation, which is having two legs that look alike.”
Having already returned to her love of running and paddle boarding, Abbott is looking forward to finding a way to dance in high heels again.
“I’ll get there, I’m sure,” she said.
She also hopes to get a fifth prosthetic, this time a flat-footed one with a lifelike silicone cover so she can wear it with shorts next summer.
“It really is a wonderful testament of overcoming adversity and what people are able to do with the right attitude,” added Albuquerque.