Updated: Nov 8, 2021
Designer. Adventurer. Entrepreneur. ALX owner.
Alex's Koalaa Soft Prosthetic story
When Alex Lewis from Hampshire had a serious reaction to a Strep A infection in 2013, he was left fighting for his life. Against all odds he survived and went on to spend the next seven months in hospital, where he underwent a quadruple amputation and extensive skin grafts and facial reconstruction.
Upon leaving hospital, Alex’s life completely changed. Having found a new sense of adventure, he is now a successful entrepreneur and inspirational public speaker, who says he didn’t just survive - he started truly living!
From kayaking more than 200 miles through Greenland, to his plans to scale the highest mountain in Ethiopia and navigate the Gobi Desert, Alex won’t let anything hold him back. And with the help of some home adjustments, a wheelchair and prosthetics –- including being amongst the first in the UK to own a Koalaa prosthetic - he is living life to the full! We caught up with Alex, to find out more.
Lucky to be alive
When I came out of hospital, I felt incredibly lucky to be alive and thought ‘what am I going to do about it?’
For starters I needed to rebuild my relationship with my son Sam, who was 3 at the time I first got ill, and my partner Lucy, who had been by my side throughout. I also wanted to look for ways to make a difference and to make the most of the life I had been given.
Public speaking has been very therapeutic for me, I especially enjoy giving talks to primary schools, who always have the best questions! I quickly discovered that there is so much more that needs to be done to support amputees, both in the UK and oversees, and I want to help drive that change. Tools and technologies are a key part of that, which is why it’s been such a privilege to be involved with Koalaa.
What prosthetics do you use?
Every amputee is different and so too is what they personally need and want from a prosthetic, but there is one huge hurdle – cost. NHS budgets for amputees are tiny, especially when you consider that each prosthetic costs in the tens of thousands. Then there’s the liners, the attachments, new sockets - they all cost money.
Not to mention the timeframes involved in getting hold of such items, which can often be three months or more. When you rely on something for your independence, that’s a very long time.
I was given a simple split hook prosthetic and have learnt to use it to carry out as many tasks as I can, including eating and drinking, and propelling my wheelchair. (I didn’t want an electric one as I used to be lazy and I didn’t want to be that guy anymore!).
But the prosthetic arm is very heavy and robust and there are limits to what it can do. Its design has hardly changed since the 1950s. The problem is, you just get what you’re given. Historically, there hasn’t been much else on the market, unless you have millions to spend on a high tech bionic arm, such as one US company we visited was quick to suggest.
How important are prosthetics to you?
For me, prosthetics are the difference between being semi-independent and hardly having any independence at all. Thanks to prosthetics I can push the boundaries of what disabled people can achieve. With my right arm prosthetic, I can unlock doors, feed myself and generally complete the core everyday tasks that I need to do, to work and live. Where it falls down is its ability to do simple yet intricate tasks, such as holding a pen, and it’s also heavy and not very comfortable to wear – one of the reasons some amputees don’t use them, or quickly give up trying. As a result, it puts a lot of pressure on my back, shoulders and muscles, and I worry about the effects of that long term.
How did you first come across Koalaa?
I first came across Koalaa as I was involved with a research project being carried out by a PHD student at Imperial College, where Koalaa’s founders also studied. When I found out about their work on a completely new type of prosthetic, I was keen to get involved. People assume that the solution needed is a prosthetic that is an exact replica of the hand that has been lost. But that’s not the case. I don’t want fingers and a thumb; I just want something functional that can help me grip and pick things up. Basically, something that will allow me to do the simple tasks I struggle with and which are difficult or impossible with my original prosthetic. That’s what people are crying out for and what Koalaa delivers.
What were you first impressions of Koalaa?
My ALX is lightweight and looks great – usually prosthetics are horrible and not attractive at all! It has a lightweight socket and the material it is made from is breathable, which is far better. When you have limb loss you tend to naturally have a higher body temperature, which again makes big, bulky prosthetics uncomfortable for any period of time.
With my ALX I actually enjoy wearing it. They’re highly flexible, with all the different attachments you can get and the low price bracket makes them affordable.
What impact has your ALX had on your daily life?
The ALX being so lightweight is the main appeal for me and it makes life so much easier. Most of my time is spent working on the iPad and while I can hold the stylus with my other prosthetic, it is very difficult and takes ages to get the angle right, as it’s so rigid. I also don’t want to be wearing something so heavy and hot all the time, from 6am to late in the evening.
I’ll wear my ALX and put on the wine glass attachment, which was top of the wishlist for me! I wanted to be able to pick up a wine glass and to hold it with confidence. With ALX, you don’t worry it will be dropped and you don’t even fe