3 minute read

Sea-Ing Is Believing

ENHP’s Duffy Felmlee explores new frontiers in orthotics and prosthetics

As a clinician and a researcher, Duffy Felmlee has a unique understanding of what it means to translate knowledge from the lab to day-to-day practice. Now, through his research with the Combat Wounded Veterans Challenge, he’s finding his ability to make an impact knows no bounds—even below sea level.

Duffy Felmlee

Duffy Felmlee

Felmlee, an associate professor of rehabilitation sciences at the College of Education, Nursing and Health Professions, has spent the last five years working with the organization on, admittedly, very niche research: studying the performance of people with lower-limb loss with and without their prostheses while scuba diving. Through their study design, which tracks and evaluates motion underwater along with other key factors, Felmlee and his research team hope to develop and institute clinical best practices for individuals with lower-limb loss to participate in scuba diving. “In the able-bodied community, we’re seeing an uptick in subsurface rehabilitative aquatic activities—not only because it’s fun, but because there is a lot to gain from being in a gravity-reduced environment,” he says. “This work opens the door for people with lower-extremity amputations to have those same experiences, along with the social and physiological benefits that diving provides these veterans.”

One of the study’s primary goals, according to Felmlee, was to develop prostheses that could optimize the diver’s ability to transfer from land to water, then back to land. Surveying participating divers with lower-limb loss, their initial preference was to swim without their prostheses, he says. But, as the study evolved, Felmlee discovered that use of the prosthetics provided a level of autonomy for divers, allowing them to remain more actively engaged in preparation pre- and post- dive and maximize the subsurface dive experience.

While this specific study focused mostly on recreational diving, in 2020, the U.S. Army Special Forces came calling, hoping to utilize the team’s findings to properly equip one of its combat divers with a lower-limb amputation.

Senior researcher Michael McCauley observing buoyancy and propulsion of the Tail Assist Bilateral Elevator/Rudder (TABER) during pool trials.

Senior researcher Michael McCauley observing buoyancy and propulsion of the Tail Assist Bilateral Elevator/Rudder (TABER) during pool trials.

Photography: Norm Vexler, Far Out Photos

“They did an open field search to see who was exploring underwater swim ergonomics, and our name popped up,” says Felmlee. “It was really cool to be able to take what we had learned and put our expertise to work. That’s putting research into application, and in a combat zone, there’s no room for failure.”

Felmlee’s research, while specialized in nature, underscores the University of Hartford’s commitment to provide students with training and opportunities to participate in evidence-based research. Today’s students are encouraged to engage in research that aligns with their interests, and, as a mentor to undergraduate and graduate students, Felmlee sees the impact this type of work has already had.

“We’re teaching students to become intelligent consumers of research,” he says. “They understand and can distill information in a way that they will bring back to their patient populations. When they take that ability into a clinic, that is what’s going to set them apart.”

As careers in orthotics and prosthetics grow and the application of research becomes more creative, Felmlee is proof that when it comes to this burgeoning field, the sky—or in this case, the sea—is the limit. “There are so many avenues of impact, whether it’s research or education or business. Patient care extends beyond the clinical setting—even to scuba diving,” he says. “It’s hard to imagine until you see it firsthand.”