MURRYSVILLE — At the age of 60, Jim Delmar retook his first steps.
Wheelchair-bound for four decades with Vietnam War injuries, the Murrysville man has now been walking for three years with the help of prosthetic legs.
Delmar lost both his legs in 1968, and he believes he was one of the only double amputees to come back from Vietnam to the Pittsburgh region.
It was July 23, 1968, 11:45 a.m. in Bong Son, Vietnam, along the South China Sea’s coast.
Delmar, then 21 years old, was with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in an abandoned North Vietnamese camp in the middle of a dried up rice field. It was hot all the time — sunny, dry, dusty, miserable.
They didn’t know the rice field was booby-trapped. About 30 seconds in, something must have hit a wire.
“I wasn’t thinking about prosthetics then,” Delmar said. “I was thinking, ‘Am I gonna be alive?'”
As soon as the explosion blew, helicopters hovered above the brigade.
Tourniquets were wrapped around Delmar’s legs and he was given morphine. Thankfully, he’d been saving two full canteens of water.
Delmar was loaded into a jam-packed helicopter — there was another wounded soldier in a stretcher stacked on top of him and his head hung out the side.
He spent a year in Pittsburgh’s VA Hospital. He met his future wife, Dreama, there. The Delmars had a son and a daughter.
Delmar enlisted in the Army, aspiring to someday become a warrant officer. It’s a different route to that position than others took, but he wanted to get a higher rank and learn more.
After being released from the hospital, he worked at Westinghouse in Monroeville as a technical illustrator/graphic designer, putting his education from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh to use.
Back then, he was fitted with straight suction prosthetics.
They functioned, but not well. Delmar couldn’t stand up straight with them, and he couldn’t walk without the aid of crutches.
He wouldn’t eat lunch at work because it was too much trouble to get up and go to the bathroom.
Eventually, he decided the prosthetics weren’t worth it.
“They didn’t have the technology then,” Delmar said.
He resigned himself to life in a wheelchair.
He still has his original, metal prosthetics in a crawl space, with the same shoes and socks on the last time he wore them.
But three years ago, Delmar met someone at a funeral who talked to him about new prosthetic technology.
The VA office put him through a series of tests before fitting the prosthetics.
He started off with training legs, called shorties or stubbies, to help learn balance and build up muscles. After a while, ankle weights were added to them to help with strength training.
During 52 physical therapy sessions at HealthSouth Harmarville Rehabilitation Hospital in Indiana Township, Delmar built up from shorter legs to longer legs. He started out walking between parallel bars for balance, then moving to crutches, then two canes then to one cane.
And now, to just his artificial legs.
“They’re amazing,” Delmar said, now 63. “But you don’t just put these on and walk. It takes a lot of training.”
Bob Coles, Delmar’s prosthetist for Hanger Prosthetic and Orthotics at HealthSouth, was on hand to help.
“Him not walking in 40 years was a difficult task,” Coles said. “But he kept himself in such good shape.”
In no time, Coles said, Delmar was ready to walk.
Taking those first steps was an unparalleled experience. Delmar never thought he’d see this mobility again.
“It was amazing,” Delmar said.
Delmar knows prosthetics aren’t perfect; he still has issues with sitting down sometimes and going down slopes. He has faced complications like the knee kicking out, the liner not staying on, and having to get new sockets made.
They won’t entirely replace his wheelchair.
Prosthetics aren’t cheap, either — each computerized leg retails for about $50,000 each.
He doesn’t use the prosthetics when it’s raining because they aren’t waterproof and it also can be slippery when walking. He carries a cane with him outside, just in case.
Putting on the prosthetics is a long process, but Delmar can do it on his own.
His are the latest generation, called c-legs.
Delmar’s remaining limbs at the femur are each about 7 inches long and are cone shaped. First, he rubs a salve on them, then pulls on a silicone cone and a sheath made of pantyhose material. Next, he attaches a thicker silicone liner with a screw attached.
He’s careful to get air out of each piece so every layer stays on better.
Next, he puts on the big leg — using a quarter to tighten the screw.
Finally, he lays down and wraps a power belt around his upper legs and body to help secure the prosthetics. He twists the legs to help put his shorts on, then adds a belt, rolls over and pushes himself up.
He can raise the height as desired, but the shorter they are, the easier they are for walking.
The legs are stiff when he first puts them on — and walking with them takes four times more energy than walking on natural legs.
It takes significant upper body strength and a lot of back exercises. Delmar wears Under Armour to help control perspiration.
It’s a process Delmar tries to go through every day.
Kevin Carroll, chief prosthetist for Hanger Prosthetic and Orthotics, said that even with Delmar’s incredible physical condition, he had to use muscles that had been dormant for years.
“He worked for it and went after it and achieved it, and went on to inspire a lot of other people,” said Carroll, a world-renowned prosthetist.
Delmar talks to people about his prosthetics, Coles said, and he’s willing to help anybody.
“To let people know, ‘This is what I went through and I’m not perfect. Look where I’ve come after 40 years not walking at all,’ ” Coles said.
Delmar spoke in front of 100 clinicians at a conference in Nevada, Carroll said, encouraging them to re-evaluate how they work with adults.
“(It) takes someone to like Jim to say, ‘If you work with me, I can do this,’ ” Carroll said.
Delmar said if he can learn to use prosthetics in his 60s, maybe others can, too.
“You’re never too old to learn,” Delmar said.