Military service is in his blood. Son of General Sir Nick Parker, Harry Parker joined the forces aged 23. In 2009, Harry, then 26, caught the full force of a booby-trap bomb, losing both legs.
Today, a writer, artist and father of two, Harry, 38, leads a largely ‘normal’ life — partly because of his prosthetics, but also thanks to his bravery, as revealed in this extract from his inspiring new book.
For the past 13 years since the explosion, I’ve fumbled around for the memory: that moment I gasped wide-eyed with the realisation that I had lost my legs.
I can’t find it. No appalling shock of a doctor or family member breaking the news to me. Instead, there are many wakings — from deep, comfortable sleep, from anaesthetic oblivion, from dreams horrible and surreal — each one eroding a little more of my old self, making way for the new one that was forming.
During those first weeks, the shock and drugs and countless surgeries distorted everything. Dreams crossed into waking, so nothing felt real.
My imagination seemed to be protecting me from what had happened, walking me around the ward so I could look back at the bed and my body, or transporting me to places from my childhood.
I was in rehab for a year. Today, to the casual glance, I walk as fast and upright as anyone else in the street. I can carry my kids on my shoulders, commute to work, walk beside my partner holding hands
It was as if my imagination had kicked into overdrive, to help me accept a body I knew was mine, but which was full of pain and attached to the wall of a hospital by pipes and wires. And broken. The left leg gone below the knee, the right halfway down the thigh.
But the moments of stepping on an improvised explosive device (IED) are seared into my brain.
I remember the shouts, the helicopter and the pain pressing on my chest. Being a body crushed in death’s fist. I felt people working hard to save me, but don’t remember seeing them.
Eyes screwed shut. Teeth gritted. It was an interior universe of agony and terror — a painful race against oblivion. The overwhelming feeling: that my experience was shrinking to a pinprick, and I had to fight that shrinking with every fibre of my being; if I didn’t, I would die.
If I had stepped on the IED that injured me while walking across the car park of a Central London hospital, there’s a chance I would survive, but those chances were actually far better where it happened, 4,000 miles away in Afghanistan.
There was no better place to sustain my injuries. Within 18 minutes I was flown to Camp Bastion Field Hospital, the best trauma hospital in the world, with just enough life left to be saved.
One moment I was gritting my teeth against the pain, thinking I would die, the next I woke to a hospital in Birmingham, alongside other unexpected survivors brought back from conflict.
When I was well enough, I joined them on the wards. They were in various states of repair, bound with dressings, eyes patched, limbs in external fixation cages, hands sewn into abdomens to keep the flesh alive.
The unspoken question of many who visited, glancing at the more seriously injured, was: wouldn’t it have been better if you died?
‘I’m not sure I could go on,’ one visitor said. This kind of response angered me. Implying my body was too broken to be worthwhile seemed to be an inability to imagine how someone could adapt.
Their sadness also hinted at something more deep-rooted: that we struggle to separate the body from our idea of what makes us human — a body has a normal shape, and there are losses that seem too great to endure.
They couldn’t see that the story was only just beginning. The transformation we had to make lay ahead of us — medicine and technology would fix us.
But in those early days we, too, found it hard to imagine, and the jokes and mocking we dealt each other across the ward concealed both sadness and uncertainty.
Physical injury could be endured; it was harder to deal with what this loss had done to my sense of self.
I lay in a room of unexpected survivors, wondering what kind of human would I become.
During those first weeks in hospital, when I thought of the future, it was hard to imagine walking again; the body I looked at seemed too pathetic and incomplete.
I accepted this — survival seemed enough. Life in a wheelchair felt most likely, maybe with prosthetics for special occasions, tottering on sticks. I could find hope in that.
But it didn’t take long to find uplifting stories. It made me impatient. How soon can I walk and run, when will I be myself again?
Ten weeks after losing my legs, I stood on prosthetics for the first time. I lowered my weight into the sockets and it felt as if a vice had closed around my stumps.
Being an amputee feels largely normal — thanks to the 8 kg of impressive technology now in the place where my legs used to be. As I am 68 kg in weight, this makes me 12 per cent machine
The wounds were still raw and it was a moment of breathtaking pain and weirdness. It was also the sudden vertigo of unbending my stiff back and being 6 ft tall after so long in beds and wheelchairs.
But standing between the parallel bars in the limb-fitting room, arms quivering as they supported my weight, I looked up and saw my body completed by prosthetics for the first time and smiled.
For all my euphoria, taking that first step brought not only a spike of pain, but an awareness that the thoughts that used to result in ‘step’ no longer had the outcome I expected, and the collection of components suspended off my stumps wouldn’t respond.
The prosthetics felt frustratingly dead hanging there, and I could only animate them with exaggerated movements from my hips.
I was in rehab for a year. Today, to the casual glance, I walk as fast and upright as anyone else in the street. I can carry my kids on my shoulders, commute to work, walk beside my partner holding hands.
Being an amputee feels largely normal — thanks to the 8 kg of impressive technology now in the place where my legs used to be. As I am 68 kg in weight, this makes me 12 per cent machine.
And while I do have my biological left knee, it’s the technology which stands in for my amputated right knee that has transformed my early, halting steps and which I am most reliant on: a hi-tech bionic knee. Called a Genium X3, it’s one of the latest generation of microprocessor knees produced by German company Ottobock.
The marketing material says it’s ‘incomparably close to nature’, and goes on to list features that read like the technical spec of the latest German car: Dynamic Stability Control, sensing to 1/100th of a second the change from stance to swing phase; the Internal Motion Unit, with its gyroscope and acceleration sensors measuring where the leg is in time and space; the Intelligent AXON tube adapter, gauging ankle movement and vertical force; the Bluetooth function to link to an app on your phone and change modes and settings. The knee can help me cycle, run, play golf — it can even be set up for ice skating.
Then there is the hydraulic unit with its two control valves; and all of it housed in a carbon-fibre frame and extra-robust polyurethane protective cover. (The German car comparison goes further: ‘on the road’ with the six-year warranty, this 1.7 kg unit costs around £70,000 — I was fitted with mine in 2013, paid for by a government fund for injured veterans).
At the centre of all of these components, and making the decisions, is the knee’s microprocessor. This little chip receives information from all those sensors and feeds it into a control algorithm, which, depending on the countless variables and permutations, decides what to do next.
If it’s quiet — say, at the end of the day, when I slump down on my bed to take my legs off — I can just about hear the microprocessor thinking, crackling away.
Sometimes I bring it close to my ear to listen. It makes a sort of electric squelching noise as it controls the valves in the hydraulic cylinder: as I walk, my bionic knee adjusts to my gait. If I stumble or stop or take a step backwards, it will adapt and prevent me falling.
It knows, for example, when I go down steps, and lowers my weight predictably. You could say that I have another brain in my knee.
Aside from all this engineering consideration, for all my knee’s ‘intelligence’, every now and again — once a month, say — there’s a day when it feels like I am inside a cruelly devised torture machine.
When the socket edge rubs my groin to a raw, open welt; or my bone jars against the socket; or some pressure sore can’t heal and is hot with inflammation.
Yes, people look twice at me in the street. I always wear shorts, as it helps people understand that, for example, if I’m entering a busy Tube carriage I might need more room — but they only see the sleek tech. It’s when I take the legs off and peel away my liners that the full extent of what a bomb can do is revealed. Very few people have seen that. If scars tell the story of your life, then a bomb writes an ugly chapter.
I try to see my scars as mere physical ones, despite what others may insist. Years ago, I was talking to a group of people about my experience when one asked me, ‘How did you deal with your post-traumatic stress disorder?’
I replied, ‘I’ve never had PTSD.’
‘Of course you did.’
This really annoyed me. ‘How can you tell?’
‘Well, I was a psychotherapist — and by the way you talk about it all. Look at you.’ She waved a hand towards my prosthetics.
I told her how everything that had happened to me actually felt overwhelmingly positive. I tried out some of the science I knew: that we all experience post-traumatic stress after a trauma, it is part of the natural response; it was the D — the Disorder bit, which was a malfunction of the brain — that I hadn’t had.
As much as I tried to tell her I hadn’t had PTSD, she just smiled and looked at me in sympathy.
Rather, I have experienced post-traumatic growth (PTG), the positive change someone can experience in response to a life crisis (and which, according to many research studies, is actually more common than PTSD).
The growth can be felt in a number of ways: a new appreciation of life, a deepening of relationships, becoming emotionally stronger, changing one’s priorities and having a fuller spiritual life.
When we hear this — that good comes out of suffering — it seems obvious; it’s an idea as old as civilisation.
This is how I feel, as well as knowing the medical technologies that fixed me were vital for my own growth — for the euphoria I feel, to still be here.
The first few times I studied my body, in those early months of recovery, I cried with sadness. I tend not to look so closely now — it doesn’t seem very good for my soul. I try to remember the times I share a bath with my toddlers and they hug my stump, and even kiss it.
It is then that I am filled with unconditional love, a love blind to any cultural influence of what ugly might be. It brings me a sensation of utter acceptance.
It’s been 13 years and my dreams are different. In sleep, I don’t see myself with or without legs, I simply see me. I am not a victim.
If I was offered the chance to rewind, to never have stepped on a bomb, not only would I refuse, I’d actually be terrified of losing this new part of my life. It would be to change my identity, to erase all those experiences, both good and bad, that make me who I am.
Adapted from Hybrid Humans: Dispatches From The Frontiers Of Man And Machine by Harry Parker, published by Wellcome Books on February 17 at £14.99. © Harry Parker 2022.
To order a copy for £13.49 (offer valid to 22/2/22; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.
UK heroes helped by other cutting edge prosthetics
Some amputees, unable to rehabilitate on standard prosthetic sockets, have sought out a pioneering procedure known as osseointegration, where the interior of the bone (in an injury such as mine, the thigh bone) is drilled out, and a titanium rod is permanently installed in place.
The rod then extends out through the skin and a prosthetic (such as a lower leg) is then attached directly to it. Many challenges of how to join the body to a prosthetic are overcome, with no need for potentially painful or cumbersome liners or sockets.
But because the implant sticks out through the skin, creating an open hole, there is a permanent breach in the skin through which infection can enter. Coring out the bone increases the chance of fractures and infection. It’s also irreversible.
For some, osseointegration has been life-changing. Jack, a friend of mine, is one. In the shorthand slang of the veteran amputee community, I’m known as a ‘double’, and Jack is a ‘triple’ — designators for the number of missing limbs. Despite his injuries, which also occurred in Afghanistan, Jack is always smiling.
But a few times we shared the same bay and you could tell he was finding life tough. Which 18-year-old wouldn’t after losing three limbs. A big man — good for soldiering, bad for amputee-ing — he had been left with short stumps. None of the prosthetics made for him seemed to work.
Thanks to its risks, osseointegration wasn’t offered in the UK in the early days. But then a couple of soldiers took action. After begging and borrowing the funds, they travelled to Australia, where osseointegration was available privately. They returned with improved gaits, fitter, happier and almost pain-free.
In a surprisingly agile response, two military surgeons, Jon Kendrew and Demetrius Evriviades, who had spent the past decade of their careers patching up soldiers, decided to bring the procedure to the UK. They launched a trial at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham, for a dozen soldiers. Jack was one of them.
Today he is transformed. He says: ‘There’s no sweat and rubbing of sockets. There’s no slipping. It’s as solid as rock.’
The operation is still being trialled, but I don’t qualify, as I can leave my legs on from 7am until I go to bed. For an amputee, that’s good going, and the risks aren’t worth it. Maybe I will need osseo in the future, as my bones deteriorate. But that’s in the future.