Once upon a rink

Tufts physician helps amputees achieve their athletic dreams

In 1975, a young boy named Gennady Trunin went to the Institute for Prosthetic Research in St. Petersburg, Russia. Trunin represented a new breed of amputee, one who wanted to play sports just like everyone else. Though his ambitions were high, the technology and support for amputee sports 30 years ago was still in its infancy. Trunin eventually left the institute, but not before meeting Dr. Mark Pitkin, who would one day help him achieve his athletic dreams.

Pitkin, research associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Tufts School of Medicine, spent the next three decades working with amputees from the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya and designing prosthetic limbs. In the late 1990s, he founded the International Institute for Prosthetic Rehabilitation of Landmine Survivors (IPRLS). Through this Tufts-affiliated, nonprofit organization, Pitkin and his colleagues provide Russian amputee landmine survivors, many of whom are children, with medical treatment and prosthetic limbs. Since 1998, Pitkin has headed the U.S.-Russian Partnership Program in Prosthetics and Rehabilitation between the IPRLS and the St. Petersburg Albrecht Center for Occupational Expertise, Prosthetics and Rehabilitation.

Dr. Mark Pitkin, second from left, with the Russian team after a game last February in Geneva. Photos courtesy of Mark Pitkin

In 1999, Pitkin and his colleagues from the center had an idea: Why couldn’t amputees play ice hockey standing up?

During the late ’90s, amputees interested in playing hockey were limited to sled hockey, in which the athletes sit in a sled and propel themselves with their arms. Pitkin was convinced that standing amputee hockey was a possibility. A few months later, he found himself in a St. Petersburg ice rink. Gliding across the ice were players of varying ages and abilities. They had a couple of things in common: They loved hockey, and they were army veterans who had lost limbs in recent wars. Pitkin asked the players to come to Boston. He saw the trip as an opportunity to promote hockey as a useful mode of rehabilitation for amputee landmine survivors as well as a chance to show an American audience that amputees can play any sport.

10 minutes that counted
The players landed in Boston in winter 1999 and took to the ice during the intermission of a UMass Lowell/New Hampshire hockey game. They played against a team of U.S. postal workers. The game lasted just 10 minutes, but was covered by Sports Illustrated and the Associated Press. For the players, the game represented the birth of a new sport and a step toward changing the way amputees are perceived.

The game also set something in motion for Pitkin. The Boston game led to another in St. Petersburg, and eventually, news of the amputee hockey program reached a man in Russia. He was an amputee who had wanted to play hockey for as long as he could remember. The man sought out the coach of the Russian team.

“What’s your name?” the coach asked.

“Gennady Trunin,” he replied.

Trunin joined the Russian Amputee Hockey Team, accompanying them as they played during the Russian National Rehabilitation Congress in 2001.

Once again, Dr. Mark Pitkin found himself in a rink watching amputees play hockey. But instead of just Russian players, the benches were crowded with players from Finland, the United States, Canada, Belarus and Estonia. After the game, the Russian coach approached Pitkin: “Mark, this guy knows you.”

Gennady Trunin walked toward the two with a smile on his face. The little boy from the Institute for Prosthetic Research had grown up—and become a hockey player.

Today, Pitkin notes that Trunin plays on one of the prosthetic limbs that he designed. Pitkin didn’t have to wait another 30 years to see Trunin again. In October, he traveled to Prague to arrange a demonstration conducted by Trunin, two other Russian players and two Finnish players. Pitkin said he believes the Czech Republic will join the United States, Russia, Canada and Finland as the fifth country to develop an amputee ice hockey program.

The demonstration also may have achieved something else. Somewhere in the stands there may have been another Gennady Trunin. And this boy may have looked down at his prosthesis and asked himself the same question that Trunin asked 30 years ago: “Can I play?”

And then, as he saw the players racing across the ice, he might have thought, “Yes, I can.”

Editor’s note: Dr. Mark Pitkin, above, is credited with the invention of the Free Flow Foot (developed and manufactured by the Ohio Willow Wood Co.), also known as the Rolling Joint Foot/Ankle and the Rolling Joint Knee. He is continuing his research on the Rolling Joint prosthetic technology. For more information about the International Institute for Prosthetic Rehabilitation of Landmine Survivors, visit the web site http://www.tufts. edu/med/IPRLS/home.html