Leg Work

Nothing–not doubters, no amputation–gets in Sarah Doherty's way

January 2, 2009

By Colleen Friesen

Sarah Doherty jumps out of her car, balancing on her single leg as she hauls out her crutches. Weaving between the tables in a café near her Roberts Creek home, gripping a latte, she’s already talking about her newest crutch design. “I feel like I’m stretching myself beyond my abilities. Right now I’m describing the mechanical aspects of this for the patent search, and I only just realized there are standards and names for each density of rubber. I was just writing things like ‘kind-of-soft rubber.’ ” Doherty, 49, who’s become an amateur expert on rubber’s Durometer index over the last few months, hops briefly on her left foot while pushing her crutches under the table. She tries to settle into her chair, but she is without the cushion that compensates for the missing part of her pelvis. “This is, without a doubt, the hardest mountain I’ve had to climb.”

Doherty, a petite brunette who works as a pediatric occupational therapist, has climbed enough real mountains to know what she’s talking about. She is the only one-legged woman to summit 6,194-metre Mt. McKinley, a feat she accomplished in 1985 with the help of an ice pick attachment she invented. In 2004, she finished a 720-kilometre walk on the Camino de Santiago across northern Spain. But the Boston-born Doherty feels this latest undertaking is the hardest she’s faced since her marriage ended in 2002. “I was in freefall and suddenly there was this hole-not only with Russ gone, but when it was his turn to take the three kids.”

To fill the quiet, she turned her attention to her crutches. “Mt. McKinley had been the last time I’d really adapted anything. The idea was always in the back of my mind, but my life was so busy. I started to remember that I used to dream big.

“I decided to design better crutches for my Camino walk. I got them machined using titanium posts and bicycle shocks. But the guys at the shop became more and more dismissive of me, and my inability to articulate what I wanted. The problem was, I really didn’t know-I needed their expertise. Finally, when I heard they were calling me a spoiled rich woman, I left.”

Doherty waves hello to friends entering the café. “But the ongoing process was a great distraction and helped to anchor me emotionally. I needed to learn to adapt with a piece missing. I felt like that quote from Margaret Atwood where she says ‘Divorce is like an amputation: you survive it but there’s less

of you.’ ”

Doherty’s own amputation story goes back to 1973. As one of nine children growing up in an Irish Catholic family, she vied for attention. At age 13, she and her identical twin, Susan, were both fairly athletic and competitive. Their paths diverged one May evening when Sarah, riding her bicycle to meet Susan for a sleepover at a friend’s, was sideswiped by an elderly drunk driver. Her right leg, along with half her pelvis, was severed at the scene.

While doctors worked to save her life, her father made a pact with God. Save his girl and he would quit drinking. He spent the next 17 years walking 20 miles a day. When his knees wore out, he started cycling. His latest focus is weights and swimming at the nearby Holiday Inn gym. He takes Sundays off. At 85, he is still dry.

Her parents encouraged her to get on with her life. “Losing my leg at 13 and having no particular special attention from my family allowed me to internalize this as being who I am. Now if I see someone staring at me, my first thought is there must be something wrong with my hair.”

Doherty has created hiking feet, snowshoe feet, and climbing feet for the new crutches she calls SideStix. “I want to remain active, and I see SideStix as preventive steps I can take.” Her dampening system, located mid-crutch, is more responsive than the spring-shock systems on the market. The feet are made from a black polymer acetol to offer additional absorption. She is using the 6061-T6 aluminum tubing used in high-quality bikes and loves that her handles accept most bike grips. All the aluminum parts are anodized to prevent ice adherence and corrosion. She is trying to get all this ready before her upcoming climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Doherty recently visited a specialty shop in Richmond to learn about adhesives for bonding rubber. That visit and her foray to an O-ring shop in East Vancouver were inspirational: “I’ve discovered that people who are really good at what they do immediately see it as a challenge to see how they can make it work.”

Jan Andrysek, an engineer at Bloorview Research Institute in Toronto, is another enthusiastic expert. He likes that the system is for not just older people who rely on crutches or canes but the young and very active with lower-limb impairment as well. He adds, “Sarah has had the opportunity to take the prototypes into the field a number of times, which provides invaluable feedback as we try to get this latest prototype ready for her Kilimanjaro trek.”

Doherty has another criterion for her new invention: “I want crutches that last. Before my last prototypes, I used to have to throw crutches out every four to six months. They’re an environmental nightmare.”

She has struggled with more than just consumption guilt and the unfamiliar businesses of R&D and patent law. “In 2006, six months after my mom died, her sister died too. My Aunt Fran left $13,000 to each of her 17 nieces and nephews. That money came through just as I was ready to give up. I no longer had excuses. Aunt Fran’s money afforded the engineer and machinist I needed to make the next prototype. It’s not enough for all I need to do, but it’s been a good start.”

Doherty reaches for her SideStix. “Let’s face it. Crutches have not evolved. It’s time.”

Get the Newsletter

Own your city with Vancouver’s thrice-weekly scoop on the latest restaurant news, must-shop hotspots and can’t miss events. Rest assured your email is safe with us.