Pat Tillman Scholar Heath McClung sets sights on next-generation prosthetics

by | Nov 30, 2017

One of about 2 million amputees in the U.S., the UMSL student notes that the population is expected to grow with the rise of Type 2 diabetes among baby boomers.
Heath McClung, UMSL student veteran

(Photo by August Jennewein)

From Legos to engines, tinkering with things has always been a source of joy for Heath McClung. Now the University of Missouri–St. Louis upperclassman is applying that interest in a field that can vastly improve lives.

It’s not a career path that the Army veteran anticipated. He was injured while serving in Afghanistan in 2011, and the years of recovery that followed changed everything. After enduring more than a dozen surgeries, he made the difficult decision to have his lower left leg amputated. He also decided to earn a degree in engineering.

“I was making a conscious decision to rely on a certain technology the rest of my life. I thought, ‘I want to learn everything I can about this,’” recalls McClung, who started his UMSL coursework just two weeks after the operation in 2014. A few months later, he received his first prosthesis and surprised classmates by moving from a wheelchair one day to walking the next.

One of about 2 million amputees who live in the U.S., he notes that the population is expected to grow with the rise of Type 2 diabetes among aging baby boomers. He hopes his skills and unique perspective can help address some of the challenges amputees face.

In fact, McClung’s already gaining experience in the field as he finishes his degree and looks toward a graduate program in prosthetics and orthotics at Northwestern University next summer.

“I get brought in to see newer amputees and amputees that are struggling – and anybody that just has questions – because I live it,” McClung says of his job at P&O Care in St. Louis. “It’s one thing to be educated in the technology and understand its limitations, but it’s another to depend on it every day.”

Alongside all of these endeavors, the UMSL student has also managed to earn a prestigious national scholarship. He’s one of two Missourians among this year’s Pat Tillman Scholars – a cohort of 61 people selected from a pool of thousands.

“It’s very humbling,” McClung says of the recognition and the related leadership summit he attended in July. “Ryan Barrett, the first-ever UM System Tillman Scholar [in 2016], was kind of my mentor when I came to UMSL. And the thing that I love about the Tillman Foundation is that everyone is there to do something greater than themselves – helping their community and making a big impact in whatever their area is.”

As interested as he is in the science behind prosthetics, McClung says it’s the chance to directly help people with their health and activity levels that he finds most rewarding. He loves putting a smile on others’ faces – and is known to do exactly that among classmates and fellow veterans at UMSL. It’s just how he operates.

“I do what I need to do and try to lead by example and help other people through their recovery process, too,” he says. “There’s no other veteran amputees on campus, but every veteran comes with something. Every person does.”

This story was originally published in the fall 2017 issue of 
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Evie Hemphill

Evie Hemphill