Amputee’s desire to climb leads to medical leap

SideStix designs and manufactures forearm crutches to help people with disabilities walk, hike, run marathons, snowshoe, and climb mountains

by Robin Dalmas

Sarah Doherty was a 13-year-old riding her bicycle when a drunk driver slammed into her. The accident left her without her right leg and part of her pelvis, and a lifetime of walking on forearm crutches.

Four decades later, she has summited Denali, Mt. Rainier, and Kilimanjaro. She has been a U.S. Alpine Skiing Paralympian and walked the 500-mile length of the Camino de Santiago, a medieval pilgrimage trail through northern Spain.

Doherty’s desire to remain active and independent has propelled her forward. Forearm crutches continue to remain the most sensible choice for her, since a prosthetic device would demand 300 percent more energy. But commercially available forearm crutches have limitations, so Doherty has tinkered, modified, and changed them over the years to live the life of an athlete.

When she walked across northern Spain in 2004, she used crutches that had a mountain bike seat post as a kind of makeshift shock absorber. “The shocks squeaked,” Doherty said. “I had to oil them all the way through. I woke up lots of people at night in the refugios with these squeaky shocks that hummed, as well.”

Back home, she turned to her partner, Kerith Perreur-Lloyd, and said, “We need a complete redesign.”

For the next several years, Perreur-Lloyd, a structural engineer, and Doherty, an occupational therapist, kept their day jobs but worked on reinventing the forearm crutch. “We were basically doing it on the side of our desks, building prototypes and making slow progress,” Perreur-Lloyd said. “But then we decided along the way that we had to put more time into the project and into the company to make it grow. It's the kind of work you can't have on the side of your desk forever.”

A company is born

In 2009, the couple launched SideStix. The Canadian company, based in Sechelt, British Columbia, designs and manufactures high-performance assistive mobility devices to help people be more active and access terrain not usually available to people using crutches. The forearm crutches, which come in carbon fiber or aluminum, are equipped with attachments that make it possible to hike, walk on beaches, run marathons, snowshoe, and climb mountains. Each pair is custom made for the individual, manufactured in Canada, and designed to reduce injury by taking pressure off wrists, elbows, and shoulder joints. They are a green product, too. The modular design allows for easy repair.

Doherty, the face of SideStix, remains an occupational therapist to this day. “What I bring to the table is the user’s perspective and an occupational therapy perspective,” she said. “That has helped me understand how the body works and how it accommodates assistive walking devices.” Doherty used a pre-production version of SideStix in 2009 to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, 19,341 feet, the highest mountain in Africa. “That was the first field test for a new version of SideStix,” she said. “We've completely field tested all of our products prior to releasing them.”

SideStix are now being used by a dizzying array of customers whose diversity even surprises the owners. “When we started this journey, we thought that our main market would be amputees, largely because Sarah is an amputee,” Perreur-Lloyd said. “But in reality, 7 years later, we're seeing that maybe 20 percent of our clients are amputees.” The rest are people with spinal cord injuries, stenosis, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, post polio, people recovering from hip replacement surgery, or athletes with permanent injuries. “It's more about people who really want to get their life back, and they're open, and they're willing to try a tool that's helping them to offload pressure on their lower extremities so they can go farther,” Doherty said.

Wounded military veterans involved in The Heroes Project have discovered them, too. “Four of the seven tallest mountains in the world were summited by soldiers who had multiple disabilities and used SideStix to get to the top,” Doherty said. “It's amazing.” SideStix has a contract with the United States Veterans Administration that allows veterans to get the product free of charge.

Technology is woven tightly into both the product itself and the company’s operations. The business uses a 3D printer to help create inexpensive prototypes. “One way that 3D printing, or iterative manufacturing, has helped is you can print very, very realistic parts to see the fit and finish of different components,” Perreur-Lloyd said. “And then if something doesn't quite work or doesn't quite fit, you don't have to go and spend many thousands of dollars to get some mold re-machined and re-injected and so on.”

Computer numeric control (CNC) machines help manufacture parts with extreme precision, including the custom shock absorbers.  “That's one way that technology has really enabled an amazing and precise device to be put into a pair of forearm crutches,” Perreur-Lloyd said.

Each pair of SideStix is a custom product. Customers can order through the website by providing dimensions such as forearm length and circumference, hand size, height, weight, and mobility challenge. “We take that information, and partly using our website but also some programming methods, created an algorithm to print out what we call a build sheet,” Perreur-Lloyd said. “And then that build sheet is used to create a specific pair of SideStix customized for that client.”

Mobility through technology

As customers lean on SideStix to remain mobile, SideStix leans on technology to remain mobile. Doherty and Perreur-Lloyd, who married in 2014, live in Sechelt on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia. It’s a relatively remote area accessible from Vancouver, B.C., only after a 40-minute ferry ride and a 25-minute drive. “Both of us like the outdoors, and we like unadulterated kind of natural settings, and we've got it here,” Doherty said. Yet, they still conduct business around the world, and their product is on all seven continents. “Our first sale was in Malaysia,” Doherty said.

Doherty and Perreur-Lloyd travel to the United States frequently on business, since that’s where most of their customers are. While in the U.S., they use AT&T PREPAIDSM prepaid phone and plan. “We’re only charged when we’re actually in the U.S., which is good for us. We don’t want to pay a monthly subscription when we’re not there.”

Tech tools that help them run a global business include fiber optic high speed Internet. Doherty blogs on the company website about her life as a disabled person and always includes an interview with an ambassador of the month. “We’ve been doing it a long time, so we have a very rich database of people. It’s a real community.”

Perreur-Lloyd’s son, Kelly Perreur-Lloyd, shoots tutorials and videos for the website (and also created the video that accompanies this article). The business owners also use technology to talk to far-flung customers. “We use video conferencing quite a lot,” Perreur-Lloyd said. “That's a great tool for explaining different things to people and also maybe if they have an issue, if something's not quite working the way they want it to. You can trade a lot of emails back and forth to arrive at a conclusion that would only take a few minutes if you’re actually observing what they're doing.”

Technology helps small companies present a bigger face to the world, Perreur-Lloyd said. For example, their website has a new chat feature. “If somebody has a question and they’re on the website, they can click on it, then the question comes through to my mobile phone and I can just answer the question. The questions are often quite simple. But if people didn't have that immediate answer, their interest might drift. Or they may not be satisfied with their experience. I can be walking our dog and I can be answering a question that somebody's just posted on the website.”

A paradigm shift

Doherty and Perreur-Lloyd have climbed mountains—literally and figuratively—in launching their company. What summits lie on the far horizon? Doherty reflects.

“Ten years from now, I see a whole line of enhanced walking devices that can meet the needs of individuals, no matter what level they're at in their need for assistance for walking. I hope that we just change the whole outlook in the way other competitors put out assistive walking devices, so that there's more quality, and there's more focus on design that will enhance people's abilities instead of destroying their joints.”

Perreur-Lloyd is also hoping for a paradigm shift in assistive walking devices.

“The whole ‘cheap, disposable’ concept, I hope, is itself heading to the landfill,” he said. “The planet only has so many resources, and stuff that is designed to be used for a short period of time and then thrown into the landfill, it's so shortsighted. SideStix is completely modular. If something wears out, you replace that piece of it and then you carry on going. It's not something that you have to throw away and purchase all over again. I hope there's a shift in manufacturing as a whole—going back to making stuff repairable and more sustainable. That's my dream.”

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At 13, Sarah Doherty lost her leg in a bike accident. Since then, she’s climbed the world’s tallest summits and competed in the U.S. Paralympics. In 2009, she teamed up with engineer and now husband Kerith Perreur-Lloyd to create SideStix.