On a chance encounter in 2009, Ryan Blanck, a prosthetist, met an injured special operations patient (name and unit withheld due to privacy and operational security) at the Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio, Texas. This patient had suffered a devastating gunshot wound to his leg during a recent deployment. Before meeting him, Ryan was strictly focused on making upper and lower prosthesis for military amputees. It wasn’t until this encounter that he considered creating a device for limb salvage for an injury that did not require amputation, but was severe enough to lose full function. This particular patient had seen others with amputations walking, running, and even returning to their units with their new prosthesis.
Out of frustration and desperation, this special operations patient had seriously considered an elective surgery to amputate his leg in order for him to return to his team. Ryan was his last chance for saving his leg. These types of injuries are extremely difficult for patients not only because they typically have severe muscle damage and nerve pain, but also because they mean an end to the careers of men that had worked their entire lives to be the best of the best. The patient showed Ryan something he’d never seen before; an unprecedented level of drive and motivation to get back to his team. It was the same drive and motivation to never quit that got the patient into special operations originally.
Ryan wanted to match that level of drive, so he used his experience creating amputee prosthesis to develop a new type of device that allowed the patient to regain the use of his limb and return to duty. His invention offloaded the pain and addressed weakness and instability in a unique way. The upper section of the device incorporates many socket design concepts used in prosthetic limbs, while the lower section has a specialized dynamic energy-storing strut system often used in running prosthetics. According to Ryan, this adaptation provides injury-specific deflection, energy storage, and power, all while maintaining control and minimizing pain.
Word of the newly invented device, called the IDEO (Intrepid Dynamic Exoskeletal Orthosis), spread throughout the medical facility and even across the country. Soon, other injured special operations and active-duty soldiers sought him out for this same device. It was a grassroots movement that exploded; never before had a device been invented that would give these injured soldiers back some of the normalcy they desperately craved. Not only did they want to return to their special operation teams, they also wanted to blend in as if the injuries had never occurred. Ryan said his newfound mission was to make a device that the wearer would eventually forget was even there.
After helping nearly 600 soldiers return to the fight with his new invention, Ryan left the Center for the Intrepid in 2013 in order to become the National ExoSym™ Program Director for the Hanger Clinic. The Hanger Clinic offered him a great opportunity to move closer to his family and lead the program to help civilians who have had similar injuries. (Note: The IDEO rights belonged to the U.S. Army and DoD, so the device that Ryan currently makes is called the ExoSym. The IDEO is still being made for U.S. military through military medical facilities.)
The Hanger Clinic created a one-of-a-kind facility with a 5000 sq. ft. lab and a 5000 sq. ft. gym located in Gig Harbor, Washington, just for him and his team. Ryan has been improving and modifying the ExoSym since the clinic was created. Every patient he helps shapes future designs. During my interview with Ryan, he said that his civilian patients he is currently helping have had their injuries anywhere from one to forty years, whereas the military patients he treated were usually from one to five years. He said that he is always amazed at the reactions of his patients, many of whom have been suffering from crippling injuries for decades, as they start to run, jump, and do things again that they never thought were possible. Children as young as seven years old are now wearing his device. The children are now able to play and be active kids, instead of continuing down a path of a restrictive and sedentary life.
This is an amazing example of how the medical advances made to initially help the military are now being used to help everyone. Even our foreign military allies are sending their soldiers to be treated by Ryan at the Hanger Clinic. Ryan Blank is an incredible inventor who has helped injured special operations and military personnel get back to the place they wanted to be most: their units. His knowledge and expertise are now helping civilians regain their lives as well. Without Ryan’s chance encounter with a special operations patient back in 2009 and his willingness to experiment and take a chance, he may have never had the opportunity to change hundreds, even thousands, of lives. When you walk into his office and see all the unit coins and citations, you can tell just how many lives he has personally touched.
All images are courtesy of the Hanger Clinic