10:43 PM PDT on Sunday, May 15, 2011
By LAURIE LUCAS
Photo Gallery: No Limits for Physically Challenged Youths
Adam King, 19, will present his high school project next week -- his new pair of artificial legs he helped design and build.
His brother, William King, 13, is missing his left arm from the elbow but plays guitar with an unusual appendage that allows him to hold a pick.
Alex Welker, 8, who eats, writes and plays video games with his feet, finally can wear shoes and walk, thanks to a custom device he wears.
Eight-year-old Alex Welker, of Hemet, visits Johnson's orthotics in Riverside to get adjustments on leg braces that help him walk and run. Alex has a congenital condition of weak muscles and contracted joints. All three are patients at Johnson's Orthopedic Appliances in Riverside, which specializes in making pediatric orthotics (braces) and prosthetics (limbs).
The staff praises this trio as remarkable for their courage, their drive and their optimism to push past limitations from congenital defects and lead normal lives.
Gail Allison, 60, who wears a leg brace from childhood polio, has worked for owner Bill Kearney at Johnson's on 7254 Magnolia Ave. for 20 years as an orthotist.
These three boys are Allison's angels. "It's inspiring to think their disabilities don't hold them back," she said. "They're happy with who they are, despite what's been handed them. I get more from them than what I give to them."
Adam King is confident, popular and outgoing, voted prom king last month at Valley View High School in Moreno Valley. "Prosthetic legs are who I am," he said. "They're part of my identity."
His prom date, Alexis Evans, 17, said: "The first thing you need to know about Adam is that he's really proud of who he is," and his personality is liberally leavened with humor.
He'll casually quip about something costing an "arm and a leg," or "getting a leg up" on you, she said. Or deadpan that he lost his legs in a shark attack.
Adam's role in life seems to be making others feel good about themselves. "He doesn't like it when I'm having a bad day and does everything he can to make it better," Alexis said.
His best friend, Bobby Lawson, 19, said: "Adam had a hard thing happen, but no matter where he goes, he's happy and is nice to everyone."
Adam greets new people with a never-fail introduction to satisfy curious stares: "Hi, my name is Adam, the guy with no legs." At the beach, he loves to stick his pants-covered prosthetics upside down in the sand and watch the expressions of startled passers-by.
Adam was born without tibia, or shinbones, in both legs. But that hasn't stopped him from wrestling, swimming and acting. His parents, Donna and Bob King, adopted the sunny 4-year-old boy from foster care in Seoul. As one of nine mostly special-needs children taken in by the Kings, Adam said he always felt loved. "They saw the kid, not the disability," he said.
After Adam's double amputation at age 5, the folks at Johnson's fitted him with "stubbies," his first pair of artificial legs. He was more than ready for them.
"Oh gosh, he took to them like a duck takes to water," said Bob King, 58. "He started walking right away."
King said his son's psychological adjustment was equally astonishing. "I was concerned he would be really difficult to raise, but he's one of the easiest we've adopted."
Adam said he's never been bullied: "Everyone thinks my legs are really cool."
David Bauman / The Press-Enterprise
Adam King, 19, of Moreno Valley, right, works with Johnson's orthotics technician Eric Elizalde, center, in the construction of one of his two new artificial legs. It's Adam's senior project at Valley View High School in Moreno Valley. Coolest of all is the new pair he helped make at Johnson's after spending 40 hours at the elbow of orthotist/prosthetist assistant Eric Elizade.
The parts above the knee are laminated with skulls and flames, Adam's hand-picked designs.
Next week, in front of the entire school for his senior project, he will model his creations and explain the process, problems and precision involved in crafting the $40,000 devices.
Elizade, 30, said it's highly unusual for a patient to assist in this complicated procedure that involves molding, casting, sanding and aligning the upper to the lower part of the prosthetic that's constructed of lightweight metals.
"Adam learned that it wasn't all fun and art," Elizade said. "The opportunity gave him the feel to chisel and cut. But if he missed a step or screwed up, it would be messed up at the end, with all that time and money just gone."
Bob King marvels at how Johnson's staff combines art, science, ingenuity and technology "to think outside the body" to customize each orthotic or prosthetic. By combining a brace and artificial limb with a rotating device inside that can hold a pick, Elizade made it possible for another one of King's sons, William, to play the electric guitar.
William, who loves strumming "Wipe Out" with his brother John on drums, said the arm "works pretty good." So much so, the budding guitarist practices five days a week. Typically, he rides his bike, plays ball and does everything without a prosthetic, which he finds unnecessary and cumbersome.
'YEAH, WE KNOW'
Born 14 weeks premature and weighing 27 ounces, William lost part of his arm to an infection when he was 10 days old. "The county social worker said, 'You know, he is missing his arm'," Bob King recalled, adding that he and his wife looked and said, 'Yeah, we know. God wants William in our family'."
One of Johnson's biggest challenges was Alexander Welker, who lives in Hemet. He was born with a rare condition called arthrogryposis, characterized by muscle weakness and joints frozen into clenches called contractures in his hands, wrists, elbows, shoulders, hips, ankles and feet. His toes point completely downward like a ballet dancer's, making it impossible to wear shoes.
To compensate for his useless hands, Alex quickly learned to manipulate his feet to grip utensils, write, punch a cellphone, brush his teeth, dress himself, type on a laptop and maneuver a computer mouse. He relied on a wheelchair to get around.
"He can play Xbox games with his feet all day," said his sister, Ashlee Welker, 6. "He only gets tired when he has to do his homework."
Staff member Mike Openshaw merged several designs to come up with leather leg braces attached to prosthetic feet, which open in the front and back to allow Alex's suspended feet to move within the device.
At the clinic recently for a three-week checkup, Alex was break dancing on his first set of legs and first pair of shoes. "I can even wear sandals," he said with a grin.
His father James Welker, 29, has promised his son $500 when he runs, which won't be long.
"Legs kinda changed my life," Alex said. "This is an exciting thing."
Doctors once doubted Alex would ever walk, said mother Brandie Welker, 30, who home schools her son.
Alex wears the braces on outings to stores and restaurants. "He's so much happier," his mother said. "We go on walks together. His posture is better, he loves wearing his new shoes. He's very self-sufficient and feels like one of the boys