A Bionic Hand…

Yesterday I saw a piece on the Today Show about an 18 year old who is one of 10 people currently using a new “bionic hand”. He was born with a congenital malformation. His right hand has a fully developed thumb and 4 nubs instead of fully developed fingers. He has lived his life, to this point, with some compromise. From the story, I believe that he has also lived well, with patience, persistence and grace. This new medical technology allows him to use articulated fingers to grasp as he has never been able to do previously. It is a wonderful story.

Not surprisingly, this story caused me to reflect of my own progression of thought and behavior when confronted with the reality of the loss of my dominant left hand after 54 years. What I wouldn’t have given at the time for a “bionic hand”! In fact, I did believe, then, that there would be a prosthetic device that would allow me to do what I normally did – and allow for weekly manicures, too! I was ready and willing to invest any amount of money into a tool that would keep me from the reality of being one handed. But, alas, that could not be. Nor do I believe this new device would have accomplished that for me.

I did lots of research into prosthetic devices. There were two main types of prosthetics available 7 years ago. Cable operated limbs that work by attaching a harness and cable around the opposite shoulder of the missing arm. The other form of prosthetics available were myoelectric arms. These work by sensing, via electrodes, when the muscles in the upper arm moves. Both devices cause an artificial hand to open or close.

I could have had a “sleeve filler”, a device that did nothing but give the appearance of having a hand. Not a choice I wanted. I investigated a myoelectric device that would have required many hours of biofeedback training to use. It operates with the flexor and extensor muscles to open and close and my flexor went with my tumor. I made the choice not to spend my time and effort in that way. I decided on a cable operated device, a very helpful tool for sewing on buttons and repairing hems, which I use very seldom. I also designed a device for doing strength training to maintain my back and shoulder which I use weekly.

First and foremost, I needed to face the reality of amputation and grieve the loss. Everyday I look in the mirror and acknowledge that my left hand is no longer there. There will never be anything that will replace my hand. If it happened today, I still would have to learn to do all of my life tasks with my right hand. Prosthetic devices are tools – valuable tools – that allow amputees and others with congenital malformations to function more fully in life. I am grateful for the choice to use them or not.

Before my surgery, I had the privilege of meeting with 2 Sarcoma amputees, both of whom had used prosthetics. One was a scratch golfer, who had designed an amazing device that allowed her to continue to enjoy and pursue her passion for golf. The other had used 3 different prosthetic devices; but found, after 3 years, that he got along quite well without them. Both individuals demonstrated that life would, in fact, go on and encouraged me that there would be very few things I would not be able to accomplish with the right amount of patience, persistence and grace. Everyday I am confronted with something that is two-handed. Everyday I am given the opportunity to learn to do that thing a new way, to ask for help or to decide, gracefully, never to do that thing again!

Less than 15% of upper extremity amputees choose to use prosthetic devices. My prosthetist once told me that one of the “benefits” of war is the advancement in the technology of prosthetic devices, because so many soldiers return home with the loss of one or more limbs. That is such a sad statement. And yet, for those who use and find prosthetic devices helpful it is a significant benefit, indeed.

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