Engineer Bob Watts thought he was applying for a job in a toy factory. “The advertisement said it was a company making artificial arms,” recalls Bob. “I thought they wanted someone to maintain a production line for toy guns.”
In fact his interview took place in a room full of prosthetic limbs. “I couldn’t believe it, but somehow the idea really appealed,” he says.
It was a life-changing move and one that would ultimately improve the lives of thousands of limbless people. For Bob Watts, 59, is now one of the world’s leading prosthetists, a designer of state-of-the-art arms, legs, hands and feet for a remarkable selection of customers. “I was an engineer and I liked getting into the medical side of things, but above all it helped people,” he says.
The client list at the internationally famous Dorset Orthopaedic’s clinic that he set up in Ringwood, Hampshire, in the UK back in 1989 includes everyone from babies who are just a few months old to people in their 80s.
There are athletes in search of high-performance bionic running blades – like the ones used by ‘Blade Runner’ Oscar Pistorius in the 400-metre heats at the London Olympics – celebrities, soldiers, and, of course, those who simply want the most comfortable, functional and attractive prosthetics on the market.
One high-profile customer is the American model Aimee Mullins who, despite being born with missing bones that meant both her legs had to be amputated below the knee, went on to become a Paralympic athlete.
Mullins caused a sensation when, in 1996 in Atlanta, she ran the 100-metre dash in 17.01 seconds and jumped 3.14 meters in the long-jump. She has championed the on-going development of prosthetics for sport ever since. She has also triumphed on the catwalk, modelling for the late Alexander McQueen and acted in TV and movies. A sought-after motivational speaker, she was recently appointed an international ambassador for L’Oreal, Paris.
Mullins is a big fan of Bob Watts and often visits Dorset Orthopaedic on the edge of the New Forest when she’s in Britain. She owns a dozen pairs of his legs, which cost between ₤3,500 (Dh20,015) and ₤30,000, switching them to match her choice of outfit and height of heel.
“Aimee’s lost two legs but she does so much to show what can be achieved with prosthetics,” Bob says. “She’s inspirational.”
Skills that transform lives
Bob has worked with the Paralympic team too. “They used to call me the spanner man.” Needless to say, he is much more than that – his skills transform lives. He spends anything from six to ten weeks creating the perfect limb for tiny tots through to grannies.
He says he’s constantly amazed by the courage and determination displayed by many of the clients he has helped. There’s Ellie-May Challis, the plucky eight-year-old who made newspaper and TV headlines after losing her legs and hands to meningitis.
“She lost both her legs above the knee, and yet she’s in a football team. She’s absolutely extraordinary,” says Bob, who made her a mini pair of Oscar Pistorius-style running legs.
Oscar visited the little girl to wish her well. “As an ambassador for amputees he is unparalleled. He is not only an extraordinary athlete but a really nice, modest guy,” he says.
Other inspirational customers include Helen Dolphin, who lost all four limbs to meningitis while studying for her Phd. “She said, ‘I’m glad it happened to me because I have the capacity to cope with it,’ What an amazing girl,” Bob says.
He’s also visibly moved by the courage of ten-year-old double amputee Lydia Cross, who has used her disability to become a major campaigner for charities like Help For Heroes for British military servicemen and women. Invited to lay a wreath at the annual Remembrance Day service at London’s Cenotaph last year, she cut a dash in a pair of special Bob-designed blue legs decorated with red poppies.
He was delighted with her reaction. “She loved them and her friends thought they were really cool. It’s good to be able give people something that either helps express their individuality or really looks as though it’s a part of them.”
In the clinic workshops, Bob points out an arm created for a woman in her seventies: perfectly aged with veins, liver spots and slightly swollen knuckles. Even lying disembodied on a desk ready to be packed and dispatched, it looks absolutely realistic. Elsewhere the team were working on prosthetics that replicated exact skin-tones, hair-patterns and blemishes. Painstakingly designed silicone sheaths can reproduce a superbly real looking limb.
Others want something a little different. Bob shows one leg complete with an audio speaker and iPod dock. “We get all sorts of requests. One guy, a guitarist, asked for a leg with a compartment to keep his spare strings in,” he smiles. “A leg lasts about five years. Sockets can wear out quickly. You need constant check-ups.”
There are many specialist requirements. Bob recently designed a pioneering golf club grip for schoolboy player Leo Millar, 11, in preparation for this summer’s British Junior Open Championship. Leo’s father Ian said, “He only started playing golf last year. Straight away we could see he was a natural. The club professional was astounded when he realised that Leo only had one hand.”
Ian contacted Bob who immediately set about producing a prototype golf hand. “It’s brilliant,” says Ian. “It’s transformed Leo’s game. Bob is just incredible, a remarkable man who’s always there for you.”
Ian is hoping advances in technology will eventually produce a hand that will give Leo fully functioning fingers. “A lot of people have an arm missing from just below the elbow and that gives a lot of space to put the necessary bits and bobs in so you can create working digits.”
In Leo’s case – missing his hand just below the wrist – the technical problems are more acute. “He’s had several hands that you just slip on but they invariably end up in the toy box.”
Leo himself is seriously impressed with his “bionic” golf hand. “It feels really natural,” he says. “It took a bit of getting used to but it quickly made a very big difference.”
Legs that can stand up to anything!
For amputee action man Neil Heritage the main requirement is having artificial legs that can carry him through a punishing training schedule. In the past year alone this 31-year former soldier, who lost both legs while serving in Iraq in 2004, has rowed the Atlantic, competed in a triathlon and become a coach at a fitness bootcamp. He also took part in June’s Diamond Jubilee River Pageant, rowing up the Thames with Olympic ambassadors Sir Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent.
Impressive stuff by anyone’s standards but utterly remarkable for a double above-the-knees amputee who was told he would probably spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
Since those early days facing a bleak future from a hospital bed this determined father of two has battled to not only achieve the level of fitness required to live a physically active life but also to obtain the very best artificial legs for the job. His overriding aim, he says, is to stay out of a wheelchair.
With help from Bob, who he describes as “an absolute genius” he now has a pair of running blades and a pair of walking legs that are comfortable enough to wear for 16 hours a day. “I need legs that work as efficiently as possible. Those realistic finishes are all very well but the silicone actually weighs quite a bit and for someone like me that’s an issue.”
As a regular runner and a fitness instructor, Neil often wears shorts. He has no problem with people staring at his legs. “I don’t mind at all. It’s only natural that people are curious.”
Ironically after battling so hard to stay out of a wheelchair, his toughest physical challenge to date – rowing the Atlantic as part of the six man Row2Recovery team – temporarily put him straight back into one.
The massive effort required to row 4,800km caused his stumps to shrink and on his return Bob was enlisted to make him new legs. “I lost two stone [12.7kg] on that crossing and had to rebuild my muscles,” says Neil. “I was back in a wheelchair but thanks to Bob, not for long.”
Though he says he would never do it again, he has no regrets. “I get a huge psychological boost from doing things that not that many people with legs can do.” He points out that rowing the Atlantic puts him into a fairly elite club. “More people have been into space,” he chuckles. “Not bad eh?”
Bob believes Britain needs a system based on the American one. “Soldiers there are given, for want of a better word, a prescription for a pair of legs for walking, sports legs and waterproof legs. They put their life on the line so the least we should do is give them the best we can.”
A man who loves a challenge
Bob, who started out as a production engineer before switching to prosthetics and travelling to Baghdad to fit artificial limbs to soldiers and young children who lost limbs in the war with Iran, loves a challenge. Recently he invented a special artificial leg designed to withstand sub-zero temperatures in the Antartic. He created it for four-time gold paralympic medallist Marc Woods for his third Centenary Race to the south pole. Sadly Marc, an ambassador at the Olympics, had to be air-ambulanced out after contracting pneumonia.
But the technology helps make advances in prosthetics. Bob has been working with the revolutionary Michelangelo Hand, the most advanced prosthetic in the world, made by his old company, which has an electric opposable thumb that allows people to carry out everyday tasks like holding keys and opening toothpaste – things, as Bob says, which might not win medals or grab the headlines, but make a huge difference to someone’s life.