Think: Pimp My Ride for artificial limbs, or personalized prostheses, as Charles Crone calls it.
Following a traumatic event or medical diagnosis, even before the amputation, clients in need of a prosthetic limb may find themselves with a creative decision to make.
"[Clients] want to bring comfort for themselves by having something personalized after going through this substantial loss," said Crone, a certified prosthetist who works for Hanger Inc. in Fairfax.
Crone, who calls himself a "human body mechanic," has been making prostheses for more than 30 years. One day, a client approached him about personalizing an artificial leg.
"I remember shortly into my career, a patient wanted to pay tribute to his dad and used a bright-colored T-shirt. It was something that reminded him of his father. That was one of the first ones we ever [made]. That was one of the wooden legs."
That was 25 years ago. Since then, Crone and other prosthetists have continued personalizing artificial limbs for clients. This is often done using something as simple as a T-shirt sewn around a cast. From there, liquid acrylic plastic is embedded into the custom material and the carbon fiber underneath.
"If they get a design from the manufacturer, then quite a few other people might have the exact same pattern," Crone said. "People come up with their own ideas. We have a number of tie-dye materials. One guy has the logo of his engineering school."
Crone said one client used a 1957 West Point polo shirt, while others use religious symbols. In Boston, victims of the marathon bombings last year can be spotted with messages such as "Boston Strong" on their prostheses. Former professional bungee jumper John Reinke has a lion on one leg, an evil clown on the other. A Miami Dolphins fan known as @oneleggedphin72 on Twitter isn't shy to show his off. Fred Robinson, who has a University of Kentucky Wildcat logo airbrushed on his leg, lost it while swimming, only to have it found by a shrimping boat captain. Brian Sealock, of Winchester, shows off his Washington Capitals-themed leg at Verizon Center, and has even had players autograph it.
Crone has made prosthetic legs themed for a number of teams, including the Redskins and Nationals. One client mixed it up with a GW basketball logo, a Red Sox logo, a Redskins 'R' and an American Eagle. Other Redskins-themed artificial limbs have been spotted around town, including one with Robert Griffin III's face.
The cost of below-the-knee prostheses range from $10,000 to $35,000. Each lasts between three and eight years, depending on use. Clients often own more than one, usually one for athletic activities and another for everyday use. Some amputees prefer that their prosthetic limbs are designed to match their body, including complexion. Contractors are called in to do that and the prices are substantially higher.
"I offer it up to them. If they're kind of on the fence, I'll show them examples. Everyone's got their own comfort," Crone said, though about 75 percent of his clients don't request any personalized matching. "When the patient provides the material, we don't have to charge anything extra."
Clients often think about how to personalize their prostheses even before amputation. Paula Golladay, a pre-amputation counselor who herself has been an amputee since 2002, was worried that she would be losing the Snow White tattoo on her leg. To make up for it, she got Snow White on both of her prosthetic legs.
"People come to it from different mindsets," Golladay said. "My main goal is to move away from why it happened to the 'now I'm going to go forward with my life.' When you have customization done, you admit not only to yourself but to the world that you accept the skin that you are in and that you're proud of being an amputee."