You don’t need to be a medical specialist to know that technology in prosthetic limbs has made major advances over the last century, but for Brigadier Bill Rolfe AO (Ret’d), the change has been more personal than for most. Bill lost both his legs at the age of 23, during a sudden explosion while on patrol in Phouc Tuy province in South Vietnam in August 1970. Bill was one of four soldiers caught in the explosion; one soldier was killed. For Bill, the remainder of 1970 meant regular trips from Ingleburn Military Hospital to the Repatriation and Artificial Limb Appliance Centre (RALAC) in Sydney.
‘Travel was in Land Rover Ambulances and was most uncomfortable,’ recalls Bill, ‘but the trips were necessary as the replacement limbs needed a lot of adjustments to fit well.’ Made out of wood and leather with a solid rubber foot, the patella tendon bearing (PTB) left prosthetic was ‘almost easy to fit’. Bill had, however, sustained a much more complex injury to his right leg, which required a complicated additional support around the thigh. For several years, when Bill removed his right prosthetic at the end of a long day, it would be covered in blood. Eventually, surgeons were able to offer Bill a solution: a new operation, involving grafting tissue from his left arm onto the right leg stump, allowed the use of a PTB.
The beginnings of artificial limb replacement in Australia go back to the end of the First World War, with the first experimental artificial limb appliance factory set up in Caulfield Repatriation Hospital in 1917 by the Department of Defence. The Repatriation Department (now DVA) became responsible for this work in 1921 and the centres became known as RALACs in 1961. RALACs were located in each state capital with additional sub-centres in other major locations. Over the decades prosthetics underwent dramatic changes.
‘No longer made out of wood, the current appliance is lightweight and has a special lining to ensure maximum protection for my stump. It also boasts an articulated “ankle joint” and a metal spring with the ability to transfer stored energy from the heel of the foot to the toe area, making walking so much easier. The attachments to the leg are by means of suction – a silicon sheath with a one way valve in the prosthetic limb, which is a long way from the earlier methods in 1970.’