Gallery: Biblioburro: With new prosthetic, Colombian man can continue sharing his passion for reading
He pulled a tennis shoe off his wooden foot, unhooked his plastic leg.
Luis Soriano, 40, sat in a chair at Pinnacle Orthotics and Prosthetics off Shallowford Road on Thursday night, the stubby residual limb of his left leg dangling from his knee. Jim Rogers, the prosthetist, handed him the goods: a new, tighter socket attached to a carbon composite foot, the type of sleek appendage seen on athletes and amputees with money.
It's the reason Soriano flew here from his home in rural northern Colombia, where he runs a school and helps in his family's restaurant. He has earned international fame for riding around the poor community on donkeys, delivering books to children.
"Tell him to kind of walk on the bars," Rogers said to a translator. "Make sure everything is fit properly."
Soriano pushed off the chair, grabbed the metal poles with both hands, stepped forward. He walked about 10 feet to the wall, turned back, stood straight, straighter than he could with his old leg. He hadn't noticed the problem until now, but his old socket was too big; his leg rubbed up and down as he moved. He had to shift his weight as he walked. For hours, he stood crooked.
"Muy bien," he said. "Este está más liviano. Entonces, me siento como estoy pisando en el aire."
This one is much lighter. I feel like I'm walking on air.
Soriano bounced on his new leg. He crouched and sprang up. He moved to the hallway, leaned against the leg, rotated it in circles. He spread his legs out like a child in a gym class, tapped the floor with his new foot seven, eight times.
"Si," he said. "No hay problema."
He began to salsa.
Soriano grew up on a livestock farm in Magdalena, a department in Colombia that runs into the Caribbean Sea. He discovered his life's work as a child, when his aunt read the Bible to him three times a day. He dove into books about Egyptian pyramids and Greek mythology.
Working among his father's cows and horses, he studied pictures of the old architecture and wondered what his life would be like in ancient worlds. He grew older and became a teacher, but he still rose at 3 a.m. every day to sip coffee and read for a couple hours. The practice is spiritual.
"I feel very relaxed," he said, "and so rapt."
At his school, however, he became disheartened. Students weren't doing their homework. They weren't reading. Soon he realized some didn't have any books. So in 1997, Soriano opened the Biblioburro, his mobile library.
He strapped books onto wooden crates on the sides of his father's donkeys, Alfa and Beto. On Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, he rode them to a rotation of villages and delivered the books. With time, the operation grew. People donated more reading material, and he rode farther from home.
But even simple trips such as this are dangerous.
For 52 years, the country played theater to a war between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a Marxist rebel group known in short as FARC. An estimated 220,000 people died as a result of the fighting, and about 6 million were displaced.
Rebels became known for kidnappings and killings, while the government sometimes unleashed paramilitary groups, some led by warlords, in local villages.
Last year, Congress and FARC leaders negotiated a peace agreement. Rebel fighters came out of hiding into "concentration zones," where they surrendered rifles to United Nations teams. Local analysts fear the peace is unstable, though; voters narrowly rejected the agreement in a referendum last year before the government pushed it through anyway.
The National Liberation Army, the second largest rebel force, is negotiating a peace agreement, as well.
Soriano said family members have died as a result of the war. Neighbors who received threats have left the community. Thieves have stolen books.
"That is part of the terror of war, no?" he said.
Simpler problems can arise, too. About six years ago, Soriano fell while riding between towns. Beto panicked, jumped in the air and landed a hoof square on Soriano's left leg, inches above his ankle. He heard the bone snap in two, and part of it cut through his skin. He could feel a space about two fingers wide between the broken bone segments.
Screaming, he pulled himself onto the donkey and rode for 15 minutes home. Doctors in the local emergency room mended his ankle. But eight months later, his leg swelled. He thought he had some sort of cancer. He waited four more months before seeing a doctor.
"I didn't want to feel that moment of knowing, 'You're going to die,'" he said.
A doctor told him bacteria had infected his leg. He now believes a medical team didn't properly clean his wounds after the break. At any rate, he agreed to amputate the limb before the infection crept above his knee.
Meanwhile, Soriano gained international acclaim. Hearing about his Biblioburro, reporters around the world interviewed him. He was featured on "CNN Heroes." In Georgia, Dalton Public Schools District Literacy Coordinator Alice Ensley sent him a message on Facebook last year, offering to help.
"Thank you for your inspiring work," she wrote.
"[It] is not easy, this work," he wrote back. "But we do [it] despite adversity. Your help is very important for us."
Dalton school employees and members of First Presbyterian Church raised money for desks and chairs at Soriano's school, Escuela Rural Mixta de La Gloria. Earlier this year, through a friend, Ensley shared Soriano's story with members of the Jordan Thomas Foundation, a Chattanooga nonprofit aimed at providing prostheses.
The board agreed to pay for a flight from Colombia. Soriano arrived Oct. 10, visiting schools in between visits to prepare to get his new leg.
In Rogers' office on Thursday, Soriano folded his body in the chair, stretching his neck toward the prosthesis now hooked onto him. He tapped it, the snug socket, the aluminum and titanium pylon, the carbon composite foot. Behind him, his old leg leaned against the wall.
His shin and calf had been plastic, like a milk jug. The foot was a block of wood with a foam cushion inside. It barely absorbed the energy from the ground, didn't push Soriano forward the way the muscles of a foot naturally do. ("That foot," Rogers said later, "it's like a Third World foot.")
That meant Soriano had to lift his heavy fake limb with muscles from his hip, pelvis and trunk. His gate was unnatural. After a long day, he explained, pain would shoot from his lower back. Rogers said the pain would only become more frequent as Soriano aged.
When he received the old prosthesis, nobody tried to align it with the rest of his body. Your foot has a natural position in relation to other parts of you. And while the difference between yours and someone else's might seem slight, an improper alignment can bring small pains that build with each step.
Soriano's foot needed to be pushed forward slightly, tilted outward just a bit.
And then there was the length of the old leg, about three-eighths of an inch too short. This forced Soriano's left hip to dip below his right one. Off kilter, energy driving from the ground through his legs delivered pain to his joints.
Taking thousands of steps a day over thousands of days, Rogers said the problems would only mount.
But the new foot and leg were like a natural extension of his body. The foot is a C-shaped spring with small carbon composite pieces jutting out the bottom of each side, acting like a heel and toe. With each step, the top of the C bends a little, and the fake heel flattens in the back.
The pieces act like a real foot, storing energy for less than a second as Soriano presses into the ground. Then the springs snap back at a 45-degree angle, pushing Soriano forward. His right leg does what it has always done. Then the prosthetic is back to work. Over and over. Soriano can run. More important, he can dance.
In the office, Rogers handed him a second leg and foot, in case something happens to the other ones when he gets home. Soriano hugged Rogers, stepped away, then hugged him again. He pointed to his leg, unable to communicate with half the people in the room, the ones restricted to English. He shook his head.
"Adios," Rogers said. "Good luck."
Soriano hugged him a third time.
"Hasta la vista, baby," he said, looking back as he walked out the door.
Staff writer Rosana Hughes translated Soriano's quotes into English for this article.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.