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Haley VA Center is offering hand that mimics real one

Joe Shamp, a certified prosthetist/orthotist at the Haley VA Medical Center, holds the lifelike skin covering that fits over the i-LIMB hand. The VA hopes to offer it on a wide scale in coming years. 

CARRIE PRATT | Times

Joe Shamp, a certified prosthetist/orthotist at the Haley VA Medical Center, holds the lifelike skin covering that fits over the i-LIMB hand. The VA hopes to offer it on a wide scale in coming years. 

TAMPA — The injuries Army Staff Sgt. Russ Marek suffered in Iraq in 2005 would have killed him in any earlier war.

His tank was hit by an improvised explosive device, killing three crew members. Marek suffered brain damage, lost part of his right arm, right leg and left thumb, and received burns over 20 percent of his body.

He felt as if his body was ruined, and with it, his life.

What Marek couldn't have known was that a device right out of the pages of a science fiction novel would give him back some of his treasured independence.

A bionic hand.

The right hand was fitted in May at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, one of just a handful of facilities nationally offering what doctors describe as a revolutionary leap in prosthetics.

About 200 people around the world have them, and Marek is one of the first to have one installed by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"It's just great," the 36-year-old Satellite Beach resident said. "It's like I've got a real hand again. It's amazing."

The VA hopes to offer the devices to amputees on a wide scale in the coming years, and Haley is vying to become a national center within the department to fit veterans for the so-called i-LIMB hand.

It has been marketed for about six months by Touch Bionics, a Scotland firm with offices in Middletown, N.Y.

So far, the company says some insurers are balking at paying costs that can climb to $60,000. But with the VA doing much of the installation work in house, and not adding a price markup, the cost comes to $25,000 for the government.

Veterans pay nothing for the battery-powered device.

"It gives veterans promise for the future," said Joe Shamp, a certified prosthetist/orthotist at Haley. "It's leaps and bounds beyond anything else on the market. It's not even close."

Until now, artificial hands were relatively simple devices that offered limited movement. A typical hand would move just three fingers in a pinching motion, something akin to grabbing an object with tweezers, Shamp said.

The i-LIMB hand, however, has a micro motor in each finger. Electrical impulses from muscles in the surviving part of the limb, tapped by electrodes, tell the motors to move the fingers.

The VA says it takes some occupational training to get use to it, but Marek said it becomes almost second nature after a while.

And the i-LIMB hand regulates the power of the grip. When a finger encounters resistance, the finger's motor stops applying pressure. The other fingers continue moving until they also meet resistance.

Things that have long been difficult, if not impossible, for amputees are easily accomplished with practice, said Dr. Gail Latlief, director of Haley's amputee program.

Those tasks may include turning a key, turning the knob on a door, writing, using an ATM card.

"It opens up a world of possibilities for them," Latlief said.

A silicone hand covering, crafted to match each patient's skin color, makes the hand nearly indistinguishable from a real hand without close inspection.

Though not every veteran cares. "We get guys who want to look like the Terminator," said Mark Ford, director of U.S. sales and marketing for Touch Bionics, referring to an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie character.

But the realistic nature of the hand is still one of its biggest draws, Ford said.

"It brings people back in their mind that they're whole again," Ford said. "They don't have to put the hand in the coat pocket anymore so people don't see it."

And at 1.1-pounds, the hand's weight is in the range of the real thing.

Schwarzenegger fans may be disappointed to learn that these hands, composed of plastics and aluminum, don't give the wearer superhuman strength.

Bionic isn't a made up word created by Hollywood. It's simply the definition of something mechanical or electrical that replicates a physiologic process.

How far the technology will advance in coming years is anyone's guess. Latlief said some researchers are exploring the application of micro computer chips in the brain, allowing patients to move an artificial limb simply through thought. Mechanical motors are getting ever smaller.

Marek's father, Paul, sees the positive change in his son.

"I think it's given him a level of confidence that he can operate like a normal citizen again," he said. "It gives him more confidence to keep moving forward."

Haley VA Center is offering hand that mimics real one 06/17/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 19, 2008 9:46am]

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