I remember almost everything about the morning I stepped on a bomb, or at least it feels that way. I was later told I had stopped breathing four times and I was certainly unconscious. It was 18 July 2009 and I had been in Afghanistan for about two months serving as a captain in the Rifles.
That day, I was on a foot patrol and, as I walked across a field returning to camp, I stepped on an IED (improvised explosive device). I remember being flipped over very quickly and landing face down in the dirt. It was intensely painful, and I had a feeling of utter loneliness. I remember shutting my eyes, gritting my teeth and just trying to stay alive.
A combat medicine technician was patrolling a few yards behind me when it happened and I was immediately put into the “casevac chain” (casualty evacuation): I was stretchered into a vehicle and transported to a helicopter that flew me to Camp Bastion field hospital. I was resuscitated a number of times during the helicopter flight.
People who suffer major trauma are more likely to survive if they receive definitive care within the first 60 minutes of injury. It’s called “the golden hour”. I made it to the hospital at Camp Bastion in 18 minutes. At the time, it was the best trauma hospital in the world and I probably wouldn’t have survived if I’d been injured anywhere else, or even a year earlier.
The conflict had accelerated many advances in trauma medicine and technology, and everything in the casevac chain had got better and better. The last thing I remember is being in the helicopter, and then I woke up in Selly Oak hospital, Birmingham, where the injured soldiers from Afghanistan were treated.
There was no sudden moment of waking up and realising the extent of my injuries; I was pumped full of painkillers and sedatives, and I came round through a fog of nausea. I had an altered sense of self and reality.
My left leg had been traumatically amputated in the blast. A few weeks after arriving in hospital, my right leg had to be amputated. I was due to have a debridement, a routine operation where the wound is cleaned out, but they discovered that the blast had driven fungal spores into my leg which had then germinated. A few soldiers had already been lost to fungal infections, so the decision was made to amputate.
One of the interesting things for me, lying in a hospital bed, was that I felt quite hopeful. I had little knowledge of prosthetics and didn’t realise I would be able to walk the way I do now. At the time, just being alive was enough.
I was lucky. I had received a good education, I’d been to university before joining the Army and had a very loving family. I knew I had options, but for some of the youngest soldiers or those who had been in the Army for many years, it was often harder to know what to do next with their lives.
Following six weeks of surgical recovery, I was transferred to the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court, Surrey, and began the process of learning to walk again. I was surrounded by soldiers in a similar position. We were a community of people learning how to adapt to our altered bodies.
There was camaraderie, but also a sense of competition and a gritty determination that comes with military training. This, along with a certain baseline of fitness, probably explains why soldiers achieve good outcomes in these circumstances.
The road to rehabilitation was a long one, but we were fortunate that we had access to the best equipment. We also had the best prosthetists, physiotherapists and doctors, but we still had to come to terms with a different body and a new identity. Managing the technology and the way it fits on to your body, the new sensations, the interface between hardware and wetware, the rubbing, the sores, the risk of infection, all took time.
You have to adjust and learn to manage ongoing pain and discomfort. Almost everything you do as an amputee is a little bit harder, and that can be tiring, but my focus on relearning to walk gave me a sense of purpose.
I am now 12 per cent machine. There is 8kg of tech that allows me to walk. My right knee is the latest generation of microprocessor knee. I can change its settings with an app and have to charge it every week. Without this technology I feel like a very different person. It changes how I interact with the world and who I am.
Many more of us are supporting our failing biology with implants, prosthetics and wearables. Out of 11 million disabled people in the country, only 17 per cent are born with a disability, the remainder acquire one. Over the next 30 years, the number of people over 80 years old will quadruple and the number of people who rely on medical technology will increase.
We live in a society that values perfect bodies, and we try to fix people with impairments and overcome disability. Technology can help us, but we need the world to do more to adapt to the needs of the disabled, rather than looking to them to adapt themselves.
My journey has led me to explore the developments in medtech, from deep brain stimulation and exoskeletons to body hacking. We’re becoming an increasingly hybrid mix of tech and human.
When people see me, they see physical trauma and assume there is also psychological trauma. Instead, I’ve experienced what is sometimes called post-traumatic growth. I’ve seen that something hopeful is possible, the opposite of trauma.
Tech has enabled me to walk again, yet I’m not entirely freed from my disability. However, if I was offered the chance to rewind, to never have stepped on a bomb, not only would I refuse, I’d actually be terrified of losing this part of my new life.
As told to Emma Reed
Hybrid Humans by Harry Parker (Profile Books and Wellcome Collection, £14.99) is out now
‘It’s like another brain in my knee’
It’s the technology which stands in for my amputated right knee that I am most reliant on: a hi-tech bionic knee. Called a Genium X3, it’s one of the latest generation of microprocessor knees produced by German company Ottobock.
The marketing material says it’s “incomparably close to nature”, and goes on to list features that read like the technical spec of the latest German car: Dynamic Stability Control, sensing to 1/100th of a second the change from stance to swing phase; the Internal Motion Unit, with its gyroscope and acceleration sensors measuring where the leg is in time and space.
The Intelligent AXON tube adapter, gauging ankle movement and vertical force; the Bluetooth function to link to an app on your phone and change modes and settings. The knee can help me cycle, run, play golf — it can even be set up for ice skating.
Then there is the hydraulic unit with its two control valves; and all of it housed in a carbon-fibre frame and extra-robust polyurethane protective cover. (The German car comparison goes further: “on the road” with the six-year warranty, this 1.7 kg unit costs around £70,000 — I was fitted with mine in 2013, paid for by a government fund for injured veterans).
At the centre of all of these components, and making the decisions, is the knee’s microprocessor. This little chip receives information from all those sensors and feeds it into a control algorithm, which, depending on the countless variables and permutations, decides what to do next.
If it’s quiet — say, at the end of the day, when I slump down on my bed to take my legs off — I can just about hear the microprocessor thinking, crackling away.
Sometimes I bring it close to my ear to listen. It makes a sort of electric squelching noise as it controls the valves in the hydraulic cylinder: as I walk, my bionic knee adjusts to my gait. If I stumble or stop or take a step backwards, it will adapt and prevent me falling.
It knows, for example, when I go down steps, and lowers my weight predictably. You could say that I have another brain in my knee.