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A man in motion

A plane crash robbed Brad Kendell of his legs a year ago. Now he is finding his way again with new prosthetic limbs - one step at a time.

SHANNON TAN
Published August 22, 2004

The new legs will make Brad Kendell tall again.

At least 6-1, maybe even 6-2.

He has been waiting for the legs for months. They are going to help him walk.

Brad, 23, doesn't remember the moment he realized that he had lost his legs. He noticed the hospital sheets were flat and came to realize they were no longer there.

"It never really hit me," he says. "I just kind of gradually took it in."

When he came to after the plane crash, his mother started talking about prosthetics.

Patti Kendell picked out the computerized legs, known by the trademark C-Legs, that bend at the knee. They cost $50,000 each.

Brad chose a Guy Harvey painting of fishes to be laminated onto the plastic sockets.

Inside the socket reads, "Any day above ground is a good day."

It's Brad's favorite saying.

* * *

It has been a year since the plane crash that killed his father, Bruce, and a friend outside Clearwater Airpark. The injuries to Brad's legs were so severe that doctors had to amputate both above the knee.

He has been using a wheelchair to get around. Patti has been driving him to and from therapy, doctor's appointments and his job as an estimating assistant for a Largo construction company.

To prepare for his C-Legs, Brad set up parallel bars in his Clearwater home three months ago so he could practice with a pair of test legs. The prosthetists had to make new plastic sockets for the legs because he lost so much weight after undergoing surgery in June. "I'm looking forward to getting around without any help," Brad said, "without a wheelchair, without a walker, without crutches."

The sleek metal C-Legs are as close to real legs as you can get. A microprocessor in the knee analyzes movement 50 times per second and then tells the knee how fast to bend.

A few weeks after getting his legs, Brad might be able to use a walker to get around. Then he'll switch to a cane or crutches. It could take six months before he's able to walk on his own.

Patti has already planned a family trip in December to Australia, Tasmania and her late husband's native New Zealand.

Brad wants to walk on the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Someday, he'll golf, maybe even drive.

But first, he would need to take his first steps. On his new legs.

* * *

The prosthetists crowded into the Tampa office of Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics on Monday afternoon. Patti took out her video camera.

Brad rubbed a lubricant over his limbs before sliding on the C-Legs, which stay in place by suction. He gripped the parallel bars and lifted himself out of the wheelchair.

"I want to see you walk," said prosthetist Daniel Strzempka. He lost his left leg when he was run over by a lawn mower as a child, and he wears a C-Leg.

Holding the bars with both hands, Brad tentatively took his first step. Then another. But his left foot kept turning inward.

"It's sore," Brad said. "It's tiring."

He eased back into his wheelchair, removed his Buccaneers baseball cap and wiped the sweat off his forehead.

Then he got up again. Brad leaned forward, resting his hands on the parallel bars. Toe, heel, then swing the next leg forward.

He made it to the end of the 20-foot-long bars, where he examined his reflection in the floor-length mirror, shifting his weight from side to side.

"It definitely feels more like a real leg," he says later.

Prosthetist Donald Smith said Brad is more motivated than most amputees.

"He's had a strong desire to push the envelope and try taking a little more risks," Smith said.

Before Brad started practicing on his new legs at home, he went shopping. His 3-year-old white Nikes were out of date, and he wanted new shoes.

They headed to WestShore Plaza. His friend, Scott McLam, 24, wheeled him into the Foot Locker store, where they scanned the shoe-lined walls.

Brad picked out a pair of blue and white Adidas sneakers, with yellow stripes. He tried on a size 12.

"How does it feel?" Patti asked.

Brad grinned.

"I think it's squishing my big toe a little bit."

"A little tight on the sides?" joked McLam.

"A little tight on the sides," Brad echoed.

Patti bought the sneakers. Size 13, so they'll be easier to put on.

She told the lady at the cash register to keep his old pair of shoes. Brad doesn't need them anymore.

Shannon Tan can be reached at shtan@sptimes.com or 445-4174.

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