We begin with the same disclaimer we issued last year when we singled out a handful of high-impact amputees for 2020: Five is way too few. There are more amputees who made a difference in 2021 than we can possibly count. We wish we could discuss the achievements of 500 or 5,000 amputees — and indeed, if you added up all the people and stories we shared with you this year, you’d end up with a pretty large number.

All those stories are still at your fingertips, waiting to be (re)discovered in our magazine back issues and newsletter archive. Dive into that material after you read about these individuals who made game-changing things happen in the last 12 months.

Hugh Herr

It was a big year for agonist-antagonist myoneural interface (AMI) surgery, the breakthrough technique that lowers phantom pain and heightens neuromuscular control over bionic devices. Herr (who developed the procedure in 2016 with surgeon Matthew Carty) spent 2021 documenting AMI’s benefits. He and his research collaborators published the results of several ongoing studies via major papers in Nature, Annals of Surgery, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, and elsewhere. AMI’s range of applications broadened this year as well: Initially limited to below-knee procedures, it now encompasses above-knee, upper-limb amputations. Best of all, the use of AMI to revise previous amputations and restore function for longtime amputees is on the horizon. One expert called AMI “a landmark advance with great potential to improve life and rehabilitation of patients.”

Jessica Long

The five-time Paralympian kicked off 2021 by starring in the most talked-about TV ad during the year’s most-watched broadcast: Super Bowl LV (seen by nearly 100 million viewers). Seven months later, Long cemented her legacy as one the greatest US amputee athletes in history by winning six medals (three gold) in swimming at the Tokyo Paralympics, including an unforgettable duel in the pool versus teammate and fellow amputee Morgan Stickney in the 400m freestyle. Along the way she made the cover of Sports Illustrated, was a ubiquitous presence on network talk shows, and used her platform to educate Americans about limb difference, disability, and inclusion. No American amputee did more to raise awareness and generate conversation in 2021.

Tammy Duckworth

As the bipartisan infrastructure bill slogged through Congress this summer and fall, Duckworth seized the opening to attach $2 billion worth of transit improvements for people with disabilities. It’s the largest federal appropriation for accessibility in history, and it achieves one of Duckworth’s longtime objectives: bringing train, rail, and bus stations into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Illinois senator also reintroduced another bill specifically designed to help amputees: the Triple A Study Act, a first step toward improving insurance coverage for amputees. Co-sponsored with Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, the Triple A bill has bipartisan support, serves the American public, and holds the potential to save taxpayers a pretty penny . . . . so naturally, it’s going nowhere. So it goes in Washington, DC. All the more reason to cheer Duckworth’s legislative win for people with disabilities.

Billy Brimblecom

For the past four years, Brimblecom’s annual ThunderGong! benefit concert has quietly raised more than a million dollars for amputees who fall through the (massive) cracks in the nation’s health finance system. The show raised another big chunk in 2021, but not as quietly: ThunderGong! got national coverage from USA Today, Billboard, the Associated Press, NBC, and elsewhere. Those media hits gave Brimblecom and his high-profile wingman, Emmy-winner Jason Sudeikis, the chance to spread the word about the enormous health burden borne by the hundreds of thousands of amputees who lack access to basic prosthetic care. (They also induced otherwise serious journalists to say the word “ThunderGong” on network TV.) The show itself was a gas, as always, and it will keep the fires burning hot at Brimblecom’s Steps of Faith Foundation. We’re already looking forward to ThunderGong! ’22.

John Peck

This statement from Peck sums up why Military Times named him the Veteran of the Year in 2021: “If there’s something that I can do for my fellow brothers and sisters, then I want to do it.” That’s not an empty promise: He’s used his own story to help countless wounded warriors cope with physical disability, suicidal depression, PTSD, financial distress, and other challenges. Peck faced all those demons himself after returning from Afghanistan as a quadruple amputee. He has since regained some upper-limb functionality after an experimental double arm transplant.

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