Sir Saeed makes artificial limbs – the most sophisticated, advanced lower limbs in the world. In 2017 his work was recognised with a knighthood. Read how this modest engineer has been helpful to so many amputees. And the part practical philosophy has played in the development of this fascinating career. Photo credit: Blatchford website
Saeed Zahedi, Guildford, UK
At age of sixteen I went to London to continue my education, at the suggestion of my brother Amir. The flight from Tehran, where I was born, was itself an adventure. It was like entering a new unknown civilisation, famous for education, science, The Beatles and football!
Direction for Life
The pull towards biology, science and mathematics was strong, so medicine was an option for further study. But parallel to that was a desire to make things. As my first language was Farsi, I had a disadvantage in English. So I opted for a degree in mechanical engineering.
From very early on I felt a sense of duty to society; and I was uneasy about injustice, the exploitation of the poor and meek. I recall picking through my Dad’s bedside books and finding writings by Nehru, stories of Indian liberation, and the search for justice. Two years after living in London my brother introduced me to Krishnamurti. His book ‘First and Last Freedom’ lit up my desire for freedom.
In the final year of my degree course I opted for biomedical engineering, a fascinating application of engineering to medicine. With technology it evolved into improving and advancing orthopaedics, and transferring this to people with physical disability in mobility. Gradually I found ways in my work to help the disadvantaged: amputees.
Meeting the School
When I joined the London Philosophy School, a favourite activity was the Saturday afternoon maintenance team! I had a natural aptitude for fixing things. It was not until later that I heard Mr MacLaren’s (founder of the School) answer on the importance of inner justice. As a result, I stopped planning to go on missions to re-balance injustices caused by man’s exploitation of each other. Instead I began to see a more universal picture of the world. The inner work became more important.
My options for further studies were limited to only Strathclyde University in Glasgow. I heard there was a Philosophy School in Scotland and so discovered a great opportunity to serve and grow. During 6 months of intense medical courses, I had my first real encounter with lower limb amputees and saw that there was an obvious need to understand deeply the underlying science of locomotion. By the end of the year I was a university staff member and a medical physicist.
Then came one particular week of life-changing decisions: whether to move into the commercial Prosthetic Industry in Hampshire or to a Design Consultancy in Cambridge, as well as getting married! My philosophy tutor referred me to words of wisdom and I decided that it was the right time to go with the flow of life.
That meant welcoming the unknown and adopting a new way of life by starting work with a private company. Sticking to meditation was a great blessing, and I joined a new philosophy group in Surrey which felt surprisingly familiar. From all this, I felt a strong underlying confidence in the ability to deal with all the events that life unfolds.
Working with Amputees
During the first Gulf conflict (1990-91), amputees were still being fitted with wooden legs. These were archaic with very basic functionality; they felt heavy and required significant adaptation. For us, it was both challenging and motivating to develop light-weight structures made from carbon fibre composites. Computer-controlled machine tools were developed to cut strong aluminium precisely with the aim of making 1kg limbs for below-knee amputees.
These days military conflicts as well as Road Traffic Accidents due to greater urbanisation, are creating a younger generation of amputees. These amputees have to adjust to a different lifestyle, and their principal demand is for independence. This poses a new challenge for the functionality of prostheses.
Initially after losing a limb, a person has to go through a big emotional barrier. Once they’ve got through that threshold, the possibilities that life offers are now wide open, even limitless. People now see themselves as different from their body: it is an instrument and loss of a limb is no longer the end of the world.
A triad of health care professionals exists around the amputee: 1) those who fit the prosthetic and care for the amputee, 2) the medical doctor, and 3) the payer, e.g.the National Health Service, the Ministry of Defence, or any private medical insurance company.
The pathway for rehabilitation of disabled people is similar to the ageing population in terms of need, i.e. problems include atrophy of muscles, loss of balance and difficulty in mobility, e.g. stairs. Therefore treatment is from a multi-disciplinary team of rehabilitation consultants, ranging from a prosthetist who fits the limb or orthotist who fits the splints, to a psychologist, physiotherapist, occupational therapist and bio-medical engineers.
Loss of the knee creates a more fundamental challenge for amputees in walking, particularly on slopes, stairs, jogging, running, standing, sitting and getting up. Nowadays with the increase in diabetes and problems in healing, alongside the ageing population, there is an increase in the number of above-knee amputees.
Engineering solutions require a deep understanding of the customer. For the amputee, acceptance and comfort of the prosthetic device is key. In time the wearer needs to gain confidence in the stability of the prosthesis, so reducing falls for amputees becomes extremely important. With advances in design and technology, the roles of the team continually change, requiring continuous education and training.
And what about the ones who are paying for all of this? With the rising cost of technology, here there is also a need for education. I sadly recall amputees having to take insurance companies to court to enforce the supply of advanced ankle and foot prostheses. To win such a case is not easy; you must have compelling, valid data from various researchers at various universities and clinical organisations.
There is something special, even exciting, in applying the latest science. With deeper understanding, we use technology and implement solutions through engineering. Whilst my work has continued in prosthetics, I have been pleasantly surprised at how technology could be applied to other fields of medicine such as wound dressing, intelligent orthopaedics and the cyber knife which targets radiation in 3D on tumours.
The best thing about prosthetics is how directly useful it is to people. Previously servicemen and women might have died of their wounds, while waiting for extraction from a combat situation. But advances in medicine and rapid extraction mean that we now have more soldiers with multi-limb loss. The drive and motivation of these super-humans equipped with new devices has enabled new records in athletics and brought Paralympians a step closer to being Olympians.
We use every bit of media exposure to educate the public and politicians towards making available the required resources. Thanks to the Paralympic and Invictus games and the wide media coverage of elite athletes with prosthetic limbs, the perception of loss of a limb and its replacement has changed.
But to acquire relevant data to feed the media, it requires a network of young researchers working in this field. Researchers need funding to conduct studies and disseminate the results.
The Future in Engineering
I remember very well what Prince Phillip said at the Royal Academy of Engineering: “Whatever is not created by God must be created by an engineer.” At the RAE, our challenge is to encourage enough young people to choose engineering. By 2025 it is estimated that the UK will need 59,000 engineers. Creating wealth in our society is related to satisfying this need. 2018 is the year of engineering but only 8% of engineers are women.
To bring more women into the field needs a dramatic change of image. I would love to see engineering regarded as a high-value career, so I work to get more children interested from the youngest age. Society needs to value the fantastic creativity of an engineering career. We can address so many problems through viable engineering solutions: the challenges of poverty, the environment, public health and social care.
Mr MacLaren’s other piece of advice to me was, ‘Always take on challenges at the edge of your capability’. It has proved so correct. It has been an interesting journey leading to growth and innovation, coached and supported by the School and its teaching. One remains grateful and humble.