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“Augmented,” Tracing Jim Ewing’s Journey of Amputation and Recovery with Hugh Herr, Streaming (Free) on PBS

The film follows the journey of an injured climber, Jim Ewing, guided by a climber-amputee, Hugh Herr, an MIT biophysicist who works with brain-controlled prosthetic limbs.

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Forty years ago this year a fierce storm and a great tragedy merged high on the slopes of Mount Washington, New Hampshire. In the Nova PBS documentary “Augmented,” airing this month, you can see the medical history that has followed those events (see trailer here).

The film will show at 9 p.m. EST Sunday, February 27, and is streaming online (see it here) for free for four weeks, then will go behind a subscriber paywall. It premiered February 23.

“Augmented” shows how a climber, Hugh Herr, became an MIT biophysicist whose work developing brain-controlled prosthetic limbs has benefited people all over the world—including Jim Ewing, a climber friend from his early days.

Ewing says today, “If you had told me back in the ’80s when I was hanging out with Hugh that one day I would be in the middle of all this technology, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

Jim Ewing
Jim Ewing on the Lotus Flower Tower. (Photo: Taylor Zann, courtesy Sterling Rope Company)

The film follows the dual stories of Herr, once a leading young climber, who then became an MIT professor and head of the Biomechatronics group at the MIT Media Lab. Ewing, a former climbing guide and Sterling Rope engineer; both are amputees following climbing accidents. Ewing and Herr knew each other as young climbers in North Conway in 1984, when Ewing was a college student instructing seasonally at the International Mountain Climbing School (IMCS), and Herr was working for the gear manufacturer Wild Things. They were even housemates in a group place near town.

Albert Dow of North Conway. (Photo: Courtesy Caryl Dow)

Previously, in January of 1982, Herr, then 17, and his friend Jeff Batzer, 20, both from Pennsylvania, had become lost in a storm on Mount Washington, New Hampshire. When the area volunteer Mountain Rescue Service (MRS) team set out on a search, two men, Michael Hartrich and Albert Dow, were buried in an avalanche. Dow sustained fatal injuries.

Hugh Herr
Hugh Herr in the film, in his lab. He also worked with the surgeon, Dr. Matthew Carty, to provide Ewing with a brain-controlled limb. (Photo: PBS film “Augmented”)

After being found and rescued, Herr and Batzer both suffered major amputations due to frostbite, with Hugh losing his feet. He returned to top-level climbing and then, though formerly an indifferent student, strove to honor the sacrifice made for them by dedicating himself to work in the field of prosthetics. Batzer, too, sought service, becoming a church pastor.

After Ewing, a strong rock climber of decades, broke his leg badly in a fall in the Cayman Islands in 2014, he sought Herr’s help. The film traces Ewing’s journey, beginning with the process of deciding to amputate his foot, through becoming the first recipient of a brain-controlled limb designed by the lab.

“I’m on my way to Boston to say goodbye to my left foot,” Ewing says in the film.

Ewing has since returned to mobility, and the film shows him climbing in the Cayman Islands. In August of 2018 Ewing and Maureen Beck, a congenital amputee, climbed the Lotus Flower Tower in the Cirque of the Unclimbables, the Northwest Territories of Canada. Today he is semi retired and planning trips to the Bugaboos next year and Red Rocks this spring; always an all-arounder, he did the famous Black Dike ice climb on Cannon Cliff in December. Recently Ewing competed in the all-around climbing-endurance challenge 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell—participation remarkable in large part because Herr as a young climber-amputee always had to ration his walking time carefully, due to continual pain and chafing where residual limbs met prostheses. Ewing remembers how one night their young crew went out dancing, and Hugh was unable to walk for several days afterward.

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Ewing says, “Because of Hugh’s work, that sort of thing is history.”

The film is, in many ways, about possibility and vision. “I believe,” says Herr in it, “the individual will be able to design their own physicality. Design their own cognition and emotional experience. Will be able to sculpt their own identity.

“Society is so obsessed with this idea of a normal human, a normal body, a normal mind. We’re so convinced that normalcy is the pinnacle of capability. That’s now collapsing. It’s breaking down. I think in 20 years, limb amputation will not be a disability, and there’ll be several dimensions that are actual augmentation.”

mountain rescue
In 2018, the Mount Washington Observatory dedicated an exhibit in memory of Albert H. Dow, III and the Mountain Rescue Service. Attending were Rick Wilcox (shown), with 12 members of the 1982 MRS team; Samantha Brady, of recent rescue leadership; and Albert Dow’s two sisters, Caryl Dow and Susan Dow Johnson.

Caryl Dow, the younger sister of the lost rescuer Albert Dow (whom, in another connection, Jim Ewing as a high schooler had met out at the cliffs), is spreading the word of the film showing. She says: “It is wonderful, another avenue to support mountain rescue, and Hugh, and support people who want to remember. Michael, Albert, Jeff, everyone on mountain rescue, the helicopter team, medical people … were all affected. We are all affected by the humanity of it.”

Caryl recalls a day decades ago that she drove her mother, Marjorie Dow, to meet with Herr in a lab in Boston, remembers him explaining, “Someday someone will walk in these prosthetics and know they’re in sand.” She saw her mother (now deceased) taking that in thoughtfully. Caryl says, “On the drive home she kept saying, ‘Someone could feel sand?’ She felt this was Albert’s legacy.”

The 81-minute film is directed by Matthew Orr, formerly of STAT News (Boston Globe Media) and now on faculty at Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University. Jim Ewing’s surgery was performed by Matthew Carty, M.D., of Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The new surgical technique has been named the Ewing Amputation, and used again since.

Says Ewing, “There are about 30 of us now. We even have our own Facebook page!”

The surgery can also be done retroactively for people with amputations from years ago.

Matthew Orr, director, tells us, “Hugh Herr, Matthew Carty and their teams at MIT Media Lab and Brigham and Women’s Hospital have developed a new approach to amputation that has the potential to vastly improve the lives of countless patients.”

 

(Alison Osius, author of Second Ascent, a biography of Herr, is interviewed in the film.)

 

See:

Extreme Weather Exhibit Honors Rescuer Who Died in Avalanche (membership content)

Adaptive: Maureen Beck and Jim Ewing Go to the Cirque of the Unclimbables  (membership content)

Jim Ewing’s Terrifying Fall and Recovery