His new legs dangling over the edge of a hospital bed, Vidal Lopez sat between the two people who made the moment possible: a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombings and a Chicago prosthetist.
In the day since Lopez strapped on his state-of-the-art prosthetic limbs — equipped with microprocessors that help the devices mimic natural walking — the 19-year-old has already felt confident enough to drive a car for the first time as an above-the-knee double amputee.
Walking down a hallway at the University of Illinois at Chicago Hospital left Lopez breathless Monday, but he could hardly stop smiling around Heather Abbott, whose foundation, created after the 2013 Boston terror attack, has provided Lopez and about 10 other amputees with customized prosthetics not covered by insurance. Through the foundation, Abbott, who lost her left leg below the knee, also donated running blades to a 5-year-old Peoria boy hurt in a lawn mower accident.
Lopez said he applied for a grant through Abbott's organization about three months ago. He said he was becoming depressed at the time because he didn't have insurance to cover better prosthetics and hadn't heard back from a number of charities he petitioned.
"I used to have mechanical legs," said Lopez, a U.S. citizen who grew up in Mexico and moved to Chicago for better medical treatment after he lost his legs in a car accident last year. "It was pretty different because with the other legs I can't walk normally. With these prostheses, the hydraulics are very different. The knees help me a lot to walk normally and to sit down."
Abbott, 42, knew she wanted to help Lopez as soon as she saw his application. He included a picture of himself in a wheelchair without any prosthetics and talked about how limited he felt, Abbott said.Vidal Lopez Alyssa Pointer / Chicago Tribune
Prosthetist David Rotter, left, coaches Vidal Lopez before he walks Feb. 13, 2017, down the hallway at the University of Illinois at Chicago Hospital.
Prosthetist David Rotter, left, coaches Vidal Lopez before he walks Feb. 13, 2017, down the hallway at the University of Illinois at Chicago Hospital.(Alyssa Pointer / Chicago Tribune)
"I know double above-the-knee amputees who travel by themselves, who live their lives, who work, and (Lopez) should be able to do all those things," Abbott said Monday. "He's got his whole life ahead of him. So he should have legs that allow him to do that, and I wanted to be able to help him, and everybody in the foundation, the board, made it a priority to get him what he needs."
Lopez's new legs cost about $80,000, Abbott estimated.
His mother and girlfriend came to the hospital for the momentous occasion. That was the first time Abbott and Lopez met in person, though they had talked on the phone.
Since Abbott, who also works in human resources, lost her leg in the Boston bombings, she has made it her mission to help others in the same plight. Her goal is to provide customized prostheses to people who have lost their limbs through traumatic circumstances so they can live the lives they want.
The Rhode Island woman was one of 17 people who lost at least one limb in the terror attack April 15, 2013. Abbott was standing near the marathon finish line cheering with friends, an annual tradition, when the explosions went off.
Abbott said her work is important because it helps people who have suffered limb loss and have not received the same kind of public outpouring of support as she did. Typically, insurance covers what it deems necessary for walking, but that doesn't include anything cosmetic or athletic, Abbott said.
Lopez, who lives in St. Charles, was hurt in an accident in Mexico after a tractor-trailer plowed into his car in July 2016. The high school graduate slipped into a weeklong coma, and doctors amputated one leg immediately. He was transported to Chicago for better treatment. Then he had the second leg removed.
Abbott partnered with Chicago prosthetics company Scheck & Siress for Lopez's legs. David Rotter, a licensed prosthetist at the company, designed the limbs.
"When Vidal came to us, he had mechanical knees that allowed him to walk basically at one speed and that's it," Rotter said. "He had to put a lot more effort into walking and what these (new) knees have done for him is they have given him the ability to walk at any pace and help him to walk in the process."
With his new legs, Lopez hopes to attend college next year and study engineering, a dream that was put on hold because of his condition.
And he wants to ride motorcycles again.
"When I lost both of my legs I thought I wouldn't be able to (do) a lot of things, but with this technology and this support that I have now, I think that everything changed."
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