Lighter Steps and More Active Tomorrows
Amber Konkol, a bright, energetic, and popular 15-year-old from West Allis, Wisconsin, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy by an orthopedic pediatrician when she was just a year old, but has refused to let it slow her down. She has risen to the challenge, assisted by a series of bracing solutions and devices that have evolved as she has grown into a charming and ambitious young lady.
Her mother, Christine, described the difficulties Amber has faced: “She has always had issues with picking up her feet. Whether she was using her walker or walking with her canes, she would wear holes through her shoes from dragging her feet. Her balance wasn’t very good, and she tended to hunch forward.”
But Amber was determined to pursue whatever life offered. When she was nine years old, she began participating in triathlons—a sport in which both her parents were already involved.
It wasn’t easy. Although she used a recumbent bike and a reverse walker that enabled her to run, Amber’s arms cramped painfully and slowed her down quite a bit, Christine remembers. “She would use a lot of her arm strength for balance during the run portion to compensate for the fact that she didn’t have the necessary strength in her lower half, and was dragging her feet.” The effort was exhausting and uncomfortable, but Amber decided to keep participating in triathlons.
Amber's Dramatic Success with WalkAide
A few years ago, however, orthotic technology developed a solution that has made a world of difference to Amber’s commitment to covering ground as quickly as possible: the WalkAide system pioneered an entirely new area known as myo-orthotics. Using a sensor and transmitting data through a Bluetooth connection, the WalkAide is able to send electric signals, triggering muscles that lift Amber’s foot at the critical moment during her gait cycle, and preventing the foot-dragging problems that had been slowing her down.
Amber strapped on her WalkAides in 2009, just a few months before tackling an August triathlon, and according to Christine, the results were dramatic. “Immediately, within just those few months after getting the WalkAides, you could see the improvement in her posture. She was a bit more upright; she was able to pick up her feet when she was walking, so a lot less had to be done to her shoes, and I wasn’t buying shoes every month. In the August triathlon, she did not have those issues with her arms cramping up—she enjoyed the entire portion of the run without stopping, cramping, or having problems.
“Not only that,” she adds with pride, “but Amber decided one day to walk from one end of our house to the other without her canes or her walker—which was pretty darned cool! She had never done that before. It has also definitely improved her ability to get around the house without assistance of any kind.”
"Give it a Shot—Give it a Try"
Is Amber enjoying her new level of independence, comfort, and speed? Absolutely. The only problem is counting the ways. This year, after having had the opportunity to train with the WalkAides and use them for a full year instead of just a couple of months, Amber’s 2010 Triathlon results were truly impressive: “She took a tremendous amount off her time from last year—it made a huge difference!” Christine reports happily.
Her situation continues to improve, as Amber is also experiencing residual effects from the WalkAides. “She can now pick her toes up, consciously triggering that muscle—which she never, never did without the WalkAide,” says Christine. “It takes a lot of focus for her to move it, but she can do it! As she keeps using it, it just keeps getting better and better.”
Looking forward to her 16th birthday in December, Amber is anticipating an even busier future. She has been invited to participate with the Family Career and Community Leaders of America, a group that builds on its members’ recognized leadership qualities. Members select family, community, or career projects to plan, develop, and implement. Inspired by her own dramatic success, Amber’s chosen project is to raise funds that would help to provide WalkAides to those who would benefit from them, but might not be able to afford them due to a shortage or absence of insurance funding. If successful, her pilot project might be continued indefinitely.
In addition to singing in her church choir, Amber continues to enjoy camping, kayaking, horseback riding, and spending time with her dog, a smoothcoated fox terrier. Her entire family joins her in participating in the triathlons that still top her list of favorites. Brother Aaron, aged 13, is a football player who has been entering Triathlons as long as Amber has, encouraging her with something a bit deeper than sibling rivalry, as demonstrated in their first Triathlon, in 2004:
“Amber was really nervous,” Christine recalls. “Her brother went before her, and I went with her to help her during the swim portion. When we got out her bike, and started riding, we were able to see something laying at the corner ahead of us. It was Aaron’s bike—and beside it was a lady holding his head. We biked over and discovered that another rider—a little kid who was confused about his directions—had T-boned Aaron and knocked him off his bike. He wasn’t seriously hurt, but he was swollen, bruised, and upset that he couldn’t finish, because he had come so close! I offered to carry him piggyback, while I ran the last leg, and Amber turned to me and said, ‘I’m going to finish this for Aaron!’—and she did! All her fear went right out the window, and she just went for it and finished that first triathlon.”
Amber’s selfless spirit is also evident in her plan to become a physical education teacher for children with disabilities, as well as in the message she chose to share with readers: “Other kids need to know that the WalkAide system is out there and could make a big difference in their lives. Give it a shot—give it a try. If it doesn’t work right away, don’t quit. Don’t expect miracles. It takes time to get it right, but it’s worth the effort.”