CHATHAM — If you see Vernita Jefferson walking around Chatham, ask her about her new foot — she loves to talk about it.
Jefferson, a longtime resident of the neighborhood, is the first person in the world to get a Triton "smart ankle," which allows her to adjust the height of her heel with a cellphone app.
She was fitted for it in early February, and has been going nonstop ever since.
“The one thing I tell all the people I meet with after amputations, you’re not handicapped, you’re 'handi-capable,' " the retired U.S. Postal Service worker said.
Before getting fitted for what is essentially a bionic ankle, she had to use a walker to get to the corner store, but now all she needs is a cane.
Jefferson, 73, was diagnosed with peripheral arterial disease and had her leg amputated below her knee eight years ago.
On Feb. 3, she was fitted for Triton, which is unique because unlike other prosthetics, the microprocessor-controlled prosthetic ankle allows Jefferson to adjust her heel height by simply touching a button on her smartphone. Since the Triton has embedded sensors and built-in Bluetooth connectivity, it is able to actually sync to a phone, offering real-time feedback and adjustments.
Jefferson' prosthetist, Robert Picken, who works at Hanger Clinic in suburban Westchester, said her foot has 34 degrees of motion, a wide range for a prosthetic. Hydraulic fluid inside the ankle helps control the movement. There is also a special sensor that is able to tell how fast or slow Jefferson is walking so that it can automatically adjust the ankle to the speed and type of surface she is on. The ankle adapts to the amount of force being placed on it.
“In the past, people would have to adjust manually, or they just avoided uneven surfaces, so instead of walking up a ramp on the sidewalk, they would step up onto a curb,” said Picken.
Jefferson was selected to get the Triton smart ankle because Picken thought she was a great candidate considering her activity level.
Jefferson — who has five children and 20 grandchildren she spends time with — said she loves the independence that the Triton offers her. She can now drive. Before, it was difficult to even ride in a car because the prosthetic didn't adjust well and she said wasn't able to place her foot flat or bend her leg enough to climb in a car. Sitting in a pew at church was difficult, as was going to the movies.
Another bonus: Shoe shopping is way easier for Jefferson, who calls herself a “shoe lover."
“I had problems buying a pair of shoes, because [the other prosthetic] does not bend,” she said. “But with this, I can put my boots on, and when I get where I’m going, take them off and slip on a pair of shoes by reprogramming, and then I’m on my way,” Jefferson said. This process takes about five minutes, she said.
Jefferson always has been active, and she said she refuses to let her condition change her life. She still swims and sings in her choir at Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, 6352 S. Eggleston.
She said that when people see her in the community, they ask a lot of questions like, "Were you diabetic?" or "How did you hurt your leg?" And when she's wearing the cosmetic cover that goes over the prosthetic, most people don't believe her when she tells them it isn't real, Jefferson said.
She also visits nursing homes and hospitals such as Advocate Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn and the Evergreen Health Care Center in Evergreen Park to talk about her new foot.
Jefferson said that she wants to motivate those younger than she is to continue enjoying life and to not stop being active.
“If they can see a [nearly] 74-year-old lady walking around, going swimming, playing and interacting with the grandchildren, then they will believe they have the ability to do the same thing, because we want people back after they lose a limb, we want them back in the workforce,” she said.
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