Carlos Gonzalez slowly came to. He was almost too weak to turn his head; when he finally did, he saw his mother weeping. He couldn’t understand what she was saying. His body didn’t feel right; when he tried to move it, it failed to obey. With great effort, he tilted his head to look down at it.
Only then did he notice that he was he was missing a leg.
Gonzalez had been in a coma for more than two months. On Feb. 10, 2005, the 25-year-old Mission district resident was walking to his mother’s house in the Sunnydale projects with news that his boss at the warehouse had just promoted him. That news was silenced by a stray bullet that police later said was intended for someone behind him. It struck him in the abdomen. He fell to the ground.
Gonzalez has a vague memory of an ambulance ride, but by the time he reached San Francisco General Hospital he’d sunk into a deep sleep that he would not emerge from until April 19. In the days after waking, he learned the bullet had severed an artery and cut off circulation to his leg. Surgeons had to amputate his foot, but it didn’t stymie the damage. They operated six times in total, each time paring off more of his leg, until just half a thigh remained.
The years that followed were filled with rehabilitation, medical complications and more operations. The perpetrators of the crime were never prosecuted. Unemployed and now living in the neighborhood where he’d been gunned down, Gonzalez found himself combating depression.
That depression finally began to clear in 2008 after Gonzalez heard about a group of disabled athletes who were practicing mixed martial arts across the nation. Gonzalez had trained in boxing and karate as a youth, but hadn’t imagined it could be an option for him with limb loss. A member of the group invited him to compete in the Extremity Games — the X Games for athletes with disabilities — in Michigan. Gonzalez found a martial arts studio and began training for hours a day, learning to navigate kick-boxing, jujitsu and other martial arts with his prosthetic.
Gonzalez did not win the fight. But the event was no loss to him.
“It was the greatest feeling,” he said. “Training with those guys, I’d learned how to control my anger, I learned self-discipline. I developed self-esteem again.”
Then came the next setback, when Gonzalez tore the meniscus in his good knee. More than a year later, when he restarted training, he decided to return to UC San Francisco, which had fitted him with his previous prosthetics.
He’d been having trouble with his prosthetic twisting in unpredictable ways and the socket — the connecting piece between his leg and the prosthetic — not fitting comfortably, and occasionally falling off entirely.
At UCSF he met a new prosthetist, Matthew Garibaldi. Garibaldi had helped develop the latest technology in sockets, and fitted Gonzalez with both a new socket and a new micro-chip-balanced prosthetic leg.
This year, Gonzalez hopes to go back to school, perhaps to study criminal justice. He also plans to return to the Extremity Games in 2011, to compete in mixed martial arts once more.
“I got back into training and started kicking on this new leg. I was so shocked how mobile I am now — I was able to kick over my friend’s head with an upper cut. It amazes me,” he said.
Prosthesis technology making strides
Mixed martial arts practice is not easy on a normal human leg — let alone a prosthetic one.
But with prosthetic technology improving in leaps and bounds each year, prosthetics are now better able to handle the rough world of grappling and sparring much better than they used to.
There are two parts required for a simulated limb, explained UC San Francisco prosthetist Matthew Garibaldi: a prosthetic and a socket. The socket is a plastic interface that fits over and grips to the amputated limb, and the prosthetic limb attaches to that.
In Carlos Gonzalez’s case, he’d had a top-of-the-line prosthetic, but his socket was uncomfortable.
The socket, a cup that fits over a silicone liner and then over the leg, was rubbing against his skin and causing abrasions, slipping out, and sometimes falling off entirely.
But a new technology called a high-fidelity socket interface has proved much more responsive and comfortable.
The socket has a “four-bar compression strut system,” which has four contact points on the leg and is able to bury through the soft tissue and connect closer to the bone — which, in turn, makes it more responsive and controllable.