It took three-and-a-half seconds for Adrianne Haslet-Davis to lose her ability to dance – her left leg shattered below the knee in the Boston Marathon bombing. It took Hugh Herr 200 days to give that ability back to her.
On Wednesday in Vancouver, Ms. Haslet-Davis returned to the dance floor, tearing up the stage at Vancouver’s TED conference ballroom-style in a short, sparkly dress that showed off her bionic leg. She was performing for the first time since the marathon. She danced, and then she cried.
Ms. Haslet-Davis, who had been an instructor at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio in Boston, was watching the marathon last year with her husband, an Air Force major, when they were both injured in the blast – something she does not like to speak about. Afterward, she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that she would dance again.
On Wednesday, she did – offering an emotional conclusion to Dr. Herr’s TED Talk about his work building prosthetic limbs for patients that fuse biomechanics with microprocessors.
The two met at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, where Ms. Haslet-Davis was a patient, and Dr. Herr, director of the biomechatronics research group at the MIT Media Lab, was giving a lecture. He spoke of a world where people would be able to take their legs on and off with the same ease and acceptance with which we now put on and remove eyeglasses.
“I just remember thinking … my whole life has changed,” said Ms. Haslet-Davis, who was there with her parents. “My world is different. My whole body is different. It’s so different, in fact, it felt like I had a hand growing out of my head. … And him saying that was the first time that I felt like … maybe it could be okay to be an amputee.” Ms. Haslet-Davis made the comments to the CBC. She had been scheduled to speak with other media after the TED Talk, but became overwhelmed and left the room.
They spent a long time talking after the lecture that night, and hit it off. Driving home that night, Dr. Herr thought, “I’m an MIT professor. I have resources. Let’s build her a bionic limb.”
Dr. Herr could relate to Ms. Haslet-Davis on a deep level. He had been 17 and a passionate rock climber when he suffered severe frostbite in an accident in 1982 and had both legs amputated.
“At that time I didn’t view my body as broken,” Dr. Herr, now 49, said in his TED Talk. “I reasoned that a human being can never be broken. Technology is broken. Technology is inadequate. This simple but powerful idea was a call to arms to advance technology for the elimination of my own disability and ultimately the disability of others.”
He was fitted with artificial limbs and returned to climbing – something he does at a more advanced level now than he did with his biological limbs. “I wanted to help Adrianne to do the same thing,” he told reporters.
A week after their first meeting, Ms. Haslet-Davis was in Dr. Herr’s lab at MIT. Over a 200-day research period, he and a group of scientists brought in dancers and studied how they move. They took that data and embedded the intelligence into the bionic limb.
On Wednesday, Ms. Haslet-Davis danced the rumba with a professional dancer from Boston. The audience leaped to their feet, and afterward Ms. Haslet-Davis was approached by a steady stream of well-wishers – among them Al Gore. She has plans to start a public speaking career and has been invited on Dancing With the Stars.
“I was always determined to dance again,” Ms. Haslet-Davis said in a statement, “and I knew that I had to, that I would, and here I am.”