Andrew Lourake: Independence Day

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By Laura Fonda Hochnadel

Amidst the daylong Fourth of July festivities-a barbecue with friends, water sports, and fireworks-Lt. Col. (Ret.) Andrew Lourake experienced his own personal independence day when he realized the true versatility of the Ottobock X3 microprocessor-controlled knee (MPK) that he had been fit with the month before. He and his wife, Lisa, were celebrating at a friend's lakefront home. An outdoor inflatable waterslide was set up for the kids to enjoy, but Lourake also climbed the ladder and slid down multiple times, then he kayaked around the lake, went tubing behind a friend's ski boat, and eventually joined a group of kids who were jumping off a 15-foot-high dock into the water. And when he was done at the lake, all he had to do was walk into the shower and clean off.

Lourake and child on jet ski

Lourake can now pursue his passion for water sports with ease. Photographs courtesy of Ottobock.

"[All of this] is something I couldn't have done a year ago, or two months ago," Lourake says.

Actually, he could have done all this and more a month prior and often did-he just had to do it differently. In June, Lourake, who has a left transfemoral amputation, traded in his Ottobock C-Leg for the completely waterproof Ottobock X3 MPK.

Lourake acknowledges that being able to just walk into a shower "might not sound like a big deal to most people," but for the past 12 years he had to take off his leg, crutch into the shower, and be careful not to slip. The task was made more difficult if he wasn't at home or somewhere else equipped with a walk-in shower as he would have to maneuver carefully into the tub first. The watersports he loves were even more complicated: Just to get into a boat he would have to switch from his prior MPK to a mechanical leg. Depending on the activity, he had to forgo wearing a prosthesis at all. In and of itself, the hydraulic leg wasn't so bad, Lourake says, but, when he once again donned the MPK, it would take him two to three hours just to get accustomed to walking properly. "It's not an easy transition," he says. "It is somewhat easy to go from the C-Leg to a mechanical or hydraulic knee because you concentrate so much on where you step that you are much more careful. When you go the other way...it is really a pain in the butt...."

For someone who is and always has been as active as Lourake, the versatility and functionality of the X3 is unparalleled, he says.

Lourake says his need for speed and adrenaline began when he was just a boy riding a minibike around his front yard. As he grew, he progressed to riding a dirt bike and even ventured into motocross racing as a teen. After high school, he added flying to his list of activities. Wanting to pursue a degree in aviation, Lourake joined the Air Force Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) at the University of South Florida, Tampa, and went to pilot's training from there. He earned his pilot's wings in 1988 after completing undergraduate pilot training at Reese Air Force Base, Lubbock, Texas. He served in Operations Just Cause, Desert Storm, Desert Shield, Provide Comfort, and Restore Hope. While in the Air Force, he rose through the ranks to lieutenant colonel. Prior to the accident that eventually cost him his leg, he was assigned to the 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, where he flew the vice president, the first lady, and high-level dignitaries around the world in Air Force Two.

On October 31, 1998, Lourake was riding his dirt bike at Budds Creek motocross racetrack, Mechanicsville, Maryland. The throttle stuck wide open as he came off a double, launching him about 15 feet in the air. "I pushed the bike away, and I came down in my best parachute landing fall," he recalls. (Author's note: A "double" is two consecutive jumps placed so the rider can use the momentum from riding up the face of the first jump to clear the second one, ideally landing on its downslope.)

Lourake running

Lourake put his X3 through the paces from the beginning. He says his gait is now smoother and more fluid.

He was driven to a local hospital and then airlifted to an inner-city trauma center that was better equipped to handle his injury, a left tibial plateau fracture that required open reduction. His surgery was delayed twice due to other trauma cases, first for a stabbing and then for a gunshot wound. When he finally made it to the operating room about eight hours later, he had developed compartment syndrome and underwent a fasciotomy. The following day he was back in the operating room, where his bones were plated and screwed back together, "and that's where I picked up the [staph] infection," he says.

During the next three-and-a-half years, Lourake underwent 19 surgeries and went through two replacement knee joints, but physicians were unable to eradicate the infection. He elected to undergo amputation, and with the help of the Air Force and the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), he was fit with an Ottobock C-Leg. After 500 hours of physical therapy and an cooperation and support of the Air Force, Lourake was able to return to active duty and flying-resuming his prior flight duties until his retirement in August 2009. This return to flight duties earned Lourake the distinction of being the first person with a transfemoral amputation to return to flying status in the history of the DOD.

Although Lourake has been retired for about four years, he hasn't slowed down. He spent much of the first 18 months of retirement renovating his new home after he and his wife moved to Florida to care for his aging parents. He grew up on boats and jet skis, he says, so the proximity to water allowed him to resume water sports with a vengeance. Now he pursues adrenaline rushes by riding his jet ski, water skiing, and diving, although he doffs the X3 for diving. He also works out regularly, mountain bikes, and plays golf.

Lourake mountain biking

Lourake has plans to explore more local mountain biking trails.

Using the X3, with its 20 preprogrammed modes, has made everything easier or better, he says. For example, mode six, his golf mode, allows 20-25 degrees of knee flexion, and with the ability to crouch down a bit, he says he is able to get 20 more yards out of his drive. But it is around water and water sports that he has realized the biggest changes. When vacuuming his pool, he says he no longer worries about falling in and ruining his MPK. After he launches the jet ski or boat in the water, he can just get on and go-there is no stopping to change legs. He can jump in the lake or pool without taking off his leg. The X3 is "a huge game changer," he says. "It doesn't limit me."

Although he is retired from the Air Force, Lourake is not done with airplanes. He plans to take the Federal Aviation Administration pilot medical exam by year-end and volunteer for Veterans Airlift Command (VAC), a volunteer organization that provides air transportation for combat-wounded warriors, veterans, and their families through a network of pilots and aircraft owners. In the meantime, he began a new job on August 1, working for an offshoot of VAC called Team-Up (www.vacteamup.org). According to Team-Up's website, it is a program to "establish and foster a connection between homecoming combat veterans and VAC's volunteer aircraft owners, pilots, and community leaders, for the purpose of mentoring, networking, and assisting veterans' integration back to civilian life"-essentially helping veterans regain their independence, just as Lourake regained his.

Laura Fonda Hochnadel can be reached at