Sarah Doherty is looking to “stick” it to the notion that being physically challenged is a barrier to doing whatever she wants.
Doherty is the co-founder of SideStix, a company devoted to the design and manufacture of specialized forearm crutches for hiking, snowshoeing, skiing and assorted other outdoors activities.
“SideStix is the first shock absorbent sports crutch with attachable ‘feet’ for a variety of terrains,” stated Doherty on the company website.
Doherty, an occupational therapist and partner Kerith Perreur-Lloyd, a structural technologist, have been the primary designers.
“SideStix promotes healthy, active, adventurous exploration of the world around us by providing joint protection and crutch tips to suit all conditions, from neighbourhood streets to snow-covered mountains,” she added.
Doherty has been the chief “guinea pig” during the extensive experimentation and development stages of the project. The 51-year-old lost her left leg at the age of 13 after being struck by a drunk driver. An excellent athlete, she soon found ways to return to the outdoors where she thrived.
“In 1973 I was hit by a drunk driver and lost my left leg. It was a terrible age for that to happen,” she recalled in a telephone interview from her home just outside Vancouver in British Columbia. “But I was always someone to adapt and I was very active.
“Prior to being an amputee, I had been active in many sports, and loved the outdoors. I was determined that even though I had lost my leg, I would not lose my freedom, including freedom of choices in recreational pursuits,” Doherty said.
Doherty remembers being very self-conscious about the injury, which was far more extensive than the typical amputee. She lost three joints in the collision; her ankle, knee and hip. Her entire leg was essentially torn off in the sideswipe accident while she was riding her bicycle.
That made a prosthetic leg far less useful to her and made her mobility far more difficult, she explained. While she has used a prosthetic, mostly at work as an occupational therapist, the limb served primarily as a pivot and balance point rather than a true mobile replacement.
“At night the first thing I did was take it off when I got home and started walking around without it,” Doherty said.
It didn’t take her long to get back outside doing what she loved.
“I got into skiing and that got me into the mountains,” said Doherty. “So in the early 1980s I started adapting forearm crutches for my use. Then I came up with the first climbing snow-crutch that enabled me to start snowshoeing and that enabled me to start climbing.”
Doherty said “she loves snowshoeing” and through the sport met the designer of the popular MSR snowshoes. They teamed up to develop a specialized shoe for her to use as well.
And when she says she’s field-tested the gear, she means exactly that.
“I had several difficult trekking experiences using marginal equipment and knew there must be a better way,” said Doherty.
“In 1984, using adapted forearm crutches, I became the first women amputee to climb Mt. Rainier without an artificial limb. The following year, I became the first amputee without an artificial limb to climb Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in North America.”
The idea then fell into limbo as she raised a family. It wasn’t resurrected in any serious fashion until she met Perreur-Lloyd, who became what Doherty calls a “life-partner” as well as a business partner.
One of the first versions of the SideStix was used as she walked the grueling Camino de Santiago trail in Spain.
“In 2004, I walked 720 kilometers on the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain, field testing an early prototype.”
That one-month journey proved to be an excellent testing ground for the ‘stix’ and led to further refinements. She quickly discovered the forearm crutches had to accommodate more than simple vertical stress; the ‘stix’ also had to provide support for lateral pressures as well to accommodate the walking gait in all outdoor activities.
“Over the last five years we have carried out research and development for a new shock absorbent crutch system. Our design provides joint protection, minimizes vibration to the hand, and maximizes comfort and safety for the user over the long distance – something we believe every person on assistive devices or walking sticks will value,” she said.
Currently, the SideStix are still in development in partnership with the University of British Columbia, although they are for sale to the general public.
Doherty said a university engineer is currently supervising four UBC senior engineering students as they work toward further refining the SideStix.
Another researcher, Bonnie Sawatzky of UBC/ ICORD, is setting up a graduate research project on the ergonomic benefits of SideStix.
“Jan Andrysek of Bloorview Kids Rehab — affiliated with the University of Toronto — has expressed interest in researching a paediatric SideStix model,” Doherty said.
In the United States, SideStix will be working with Boston University on further refinements.
“My goal is to perfect the design of the various elements of the modular system, and then find manufacturing options for SideStix,” she said.
Some of the core target groups are amputees, people suffering from spinal cord injuries and with degenerative conditions such as cerebral palsy, Doherty said. Seniors are another possibility, which would be a natural evolution from Nordic walking, she said.
“There’s a wide variety of people using them.”
For information, check out the company website athttp://sidestix.com. For a great video of the SideStix in action,click here.