Victims of the Boston Marathon bombing earlier this week will wear their scars for life. Many lost limbs, but with modern technology and a dash of artistry, they may soon run again—on their own terms.
Sophie de Oliveira Barata received her honors degree from University of the Arts London, specializing in special effects and prosthetics for TV and film. She spent seven years making hyper-realistic limbs for amputees before founding the Alternative Limb Project (ALP), marrying technical expertise with her boundless creativity.
She works closely with clients to create artificial limbs that reflect their lifestyles, interests, personalities, and aesthetics.
“The appearance of a limb can have a significant impact on the psychological well being of the amputee,” de Oliveira Barata said in an interview with Healthline. “Customization of a prosthesis can create a greater sense of control, personal connection to yourself and others, and, ultimately, acceptance.”
The Wounded Warrior
In early 2010, serviceman Ryan Seary was on an explosive ordinance disposal mission in the Helmand Province of Iraq when a bomb detonation cost him his left arm above the elbow and left leg above the knee. He was airlifted to safety and underwent months of rehabilitation at a UK hospital.
De Oliveira Barata made Seary a knee and calf with exposed panels of synthetic muscle and bone joining seamlessly with a photorealistic left foot.
“I think it’s fair to say [my injury] hasn’t changed who I am and I think those around me would agree,” Seary wrote in a testimonial on the ALP website. “I think 99 percent of the amputees I have met would like an alternative limb, as we tend to think of our prosthetics more as items of clothing, like extended shoes or accessories, of which everyone has their own individual style.”
Seary had high hopes for his prosthesis and was not disappointed. Seary’s leg was one of de Oliveira Barata's most fulfilling projects.
“I am very proud of the leg with removable muscle plates,” de Oliveira Barata said. “It reflects the client’s personality perfectly and was quite challenging to make, as it had to be both durable as well as removable for an amputee with one arm.”
The Ice Queen
Viktoria Modesta Moskalova, a UK singer, songwriter, and performer, appeared on stage in the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Paralympics as the Ice Queen, wearing a leg de Oliveira Barata bedecked with thousands of glittering Swarovski crystals.
In 2007, Moskalova underwent a voluntary below-the-knee amputation to address a long-term disability. She went on to perform and model internationally and has become a fashion icon and role model for other amputees.
“My natural curiosity and strong belief that it’s important to take control of your own body and…reflect your personality through altered body image, meant that facing a life of physical deformity and acceptance of the cards that were dealt to me wasn’t an option I wanted to take,” Moskalova wrote in a testimonial.
The Swarovski-sponsored leg wasn’t the first Moskalova received from the ALP. De Oliveira Barata also made the singer a “stereo leg,” a steampunk creation fitted with gears, speakers, and of course more jewels.
“The first time I wore a limb that was so obviously bionic, it gave me a total sense of uniqueness and feeling of [being a] mutant human in the best way possible,” Moskalova said.
Next Generation Bionic Limbs
“We are currently working on some sample ‘gadget limbs’ for alternative functions,” de Oliveira Barata said. “They are completely off the wall, but we want to demonstrate how far we can run with the imagination so that clients can meet us with an open mind and the thought that anything’s possible.”
De Oliveira Barata says she’s currently working on a Swiss Army-style arm with a bottle opener, flashlight, magnifying glass, whistle, compass, watch, matches, and strike pad. Then there’s the leg with a docking station for an iPod and built-in speakers that light up in time with the music. Not to mention the arm that doubles as a miniature pinball machine.
The ALP has already produced truly stunning “surreal” and “unreal” limbs, including an arm with a winding serpent for para-triathlete Jo-Jo Cranfield and a full-length sea green leg decorated with floral China patterns for Kiera Roche, chairperson for the charity Limb Power.
“I think losing a limb has a massive impact on one’s self esteem and body image. Having a beautifully crafted limb designed for you makes you feel special and worthy,” Roche said. “It's something that I think could help new amputees in coming to terms with their loss.”