lost prosthetic leg

Losing a prosthesis is no laughing matter. In addition to a financial loss totaling tens of thousands of dollars, there’s the emotional blow that comes with losing the same limb twice.

We mused on this subject after reading last week about a vacuum-attached prosthetic leg that came loose during a skydive and landed 10,000 feet below in a Vermont farmer’s field. Thankfully, the leg was unharmed and the skydiver got it back. But the story might have ended much differently, the farmer notes: “If, god forbid, the combine sucked it up, it would have destroyed [the prosthetic].”

It turns out this sort of thing happens more often than we ever imagined. A cursory Google search turned up more than a dozen fairly recent instances of AWOL prosthetics, and nearly all of these stories shared a common theme: The leg got lost in the water. Rivers, lakes, reservoirs, even oceans evidently have prodigious appetites for prosthetic devices. And when a leg sinks to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, retrieving it is far more difficult and complex than picking it up from a soybean field.

We find these underwater rescues often touching, sometimes heroic, and always improbable—but it’s the improbability that really strikes us. We end up asking ourselves: “Could this really have happened?” So we decided to try an experiment. Some of the salvage operations below are completely true. Others are partly true and partly made up. See if you can guess which is which.

1. Hollywood Cliffhanger

Lost: During a sailboat outing off the Southern California coast, a Paralympic hopeful accidentally pulled his residual limb out of the socket while reboarding after a quick swim. The prosthesis sank to the floor of the Pacific.
Found: After a three-day search, divers from the local sheriff’s department located the leg in 100 feet of murky water. “They texted me a picture of the divers coming out of the water with a triumphant fist in the air,” the amputee said.
Believe It or Not: While on the sailboat, the amputee had texted some photos to a friend who works for a Hollywood animation studio. Guided by distant mountains in the photos’ background, the animator whipped up a 3-D model of the location and matched it with Google Earth to produce exact GPS coordinates. The amputee texted those readings to the dive team, and they soon found the prosthetic on an undersea shelf.

2. Dammed If You Don’t

Lost: A fisherman’s canoe tipped over on a Wisconsin lake. He rescued his tackle box and cooler full of beer, but his prosthesis slipped off and drifted away.
Found: Three weeks later, a couple of canoeists discovered the prosthesis while paddling along a small stream several miles downstream of the lake. “When we first saw it, I was sure we had found a dead body that someone dumped into the creek,” one of them said.
Believe It or Not: When the rescuers found the prosthesis, it was lodged among the brambles of a beaver dam, with only the foot protruding. It was unclear whether the leg had been deposited there by the current or actively inserted by an industrious water mammal. After retrieving the limb, the boaters were able to find the owner by checking the lost and found section on Craigslist.

3. Later Gator

Lost: Seeking to cool off on a sweltering Memorial Day, a Florida retiree dove off his boat into the Gulf and Mexico. The force of the impact dislodged his prosthesis and sent it spiraling into the deep.
Found: Later that summer, a commercial fisherman found the leg entangled in his shrimp nets as he hauled up a catch.
Believe It or Not: The prosthesis bore only two clues about the owner’s identity: the manufacturer’s name, and a bold design featuring the colors and logo of the University of Kentucky. The manufacturer could only find one sales record for that particular model, to a longtime customer who played for Kentucky back in the 1980s as a walk-on running back. “All my legs have something with UK on it,” the old pigskinner said upon being reunited with his lost prosthesis. “Down here with all these Florida Gators fans, I bleed UK Blue all the way.”

4. A Fine Mess We’re In

Lost: While relaxing on a pontoon boat in a Midwestern state park, a woman accidentally knocked her prosthetic leg (which she wasn’t wearing) over the side and into the water. It sank to the muddy bottom of a reservoir.
Found: A local fire department’s dive crew happened to be doing a training exercise elsewhere on the reservoir. Park rangers ferried the divers over. More than an hour later, they discovered the leg about 20 feet deep, despite near-zero visibility.
Believe it or Not: The fire department (a local agency) billed the park department (state agency) for the costs it had incurred in the rescue. The park department turned around and cited the amputee for littering and imposed a $500 fine. When the outraged amputee tweeted out a photo of the citation, the divers took up a collection and paid the $500 themselves. Embarrassed by the bad publicity surrounding the incident, the parks department canceled the citation and paid the firefighters back.

5. With Friends Like These . . . .

Lost: A surfer wiped out in a large wave. By the time he made it back to his board, his prosthesis was long gone.
Found: Weeks later, a scuba-diving teenager spotted a glint of metal on the sandy seafloor. Thinking it might be a treasure chest, he and his dad expended considerable effort (and much oxygen) to wrestle the object free.
Believe It or Not: The divers posted a photo of the prosthesis on Facebook. One of the surfer’s friends tagged him after seeing the picture, but the surfer didn’t even bother to click on the link. “Every time a prosthetic leg gets washed up on a beach somewhere, my friends tag me in it,” he explained. “They think it’s hilarious.” After an interval of undisclosed length, the surfer’s curiosity got the better of him and he did click: “I looked at the picture and realized, ‘Whoa, that really is yours, dude!'” He got the leg back from the teen and his mom at a beachside restaurant after COVID restrictions were lifted.