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With new mind-controlled robotic arm, Port Richey man is living in the future

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times Johnny Matheny, 63, of Port Richey, uses a Modular Prosthetic Limb, a new kind of neuroprosthetic, which he has been testing since 2017 at his home. Matheny has been using the technology to learn to play the piano, one of many skills he said he is working on since acquiring the prosthesis, which can restore a patient's ability to manipulate objects through a system that communicates thoughts of movement between the brain and the prosthesis using residual nerves at the amputation site.
Published Jun. 5, 2018

PORT RICHEY — Johnny Matheny got fit for his first prosthetic arm about 10 years ago. It was a body-powered arm with a hook at the end.

As with most patients, Matheny's doctor had him practice with the arm before taking it home.

His doctor laid a small plastic ball across the room from Matheny. The goal was simple: Pick up the plastic ball, and carry it across the room without crushing or dropping it.

On his first try, Matheny walked over, picked up the ball and set it in his doctor's hand.

His doctor said it was beginner's luck. Matheny did it six more times in a row.

Over the next few years, Matheny quickly mastered other prosthetic arms. At 63, Matheny has what his doctors call one of the most advanced robotic arms in the world, the modular prosthetic limb. It's the same size as his other arm, and moves the same way. And the best part — he can control it with his mind.

Matheny lost his arm in 2008 after a three-year battle with cancer. Through years of prosthetics testing and eventually creating his own foundation, he's committed his life to a new calling: ensuring that no one has to live without an arm.

Matheny, who moved from West Virginia to Port Richey three years ago, said getting a mind-controlled arm was a matter of being persistent and being open to trying new devices.

Before this arm was delivered to his home in December, Matheny went through years of surgeries and testing in laboratories. When he first heard about the modular prosthetic limb, he said it was mind-blowing, comparing it to "The Terminator."

"But if it works, can you imagine how many amputees' lives this could change?" Matheny said.

Matheny first met Dr. Albert Chi about six years ago. Chi is associate professor of surgery at Oregon Health & Science University and medical director at the Targeted Muscle Reinnervation Program at Johns Hopkins University. Matheny became Chi's first targeted muscle reinnervation patient.

TMR is a procedure that reroutes muscle nerves in the body so the brain can send electric signals to a new area. Matheny also is one of the only people in the country to receive osseointegration, a procedure that implants part of a prosthetic limb into the bone, Chi said. . Both surgeries allow Matheny to operate the new modular prosthetic limb with this mind.

"When you look at Johnny, you don't really know where the man ends and the machine starts," Chi said.

Matheny is part of a study at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab that received funding from the U.S. Department of Defense.

The goal is to get more modular prosthetic limbs to more veterans. It's a goal that Matheny knows well, having children who served in the military.

They all came back safe and with all their limbs, but some of their friends did not.

Chi was one of many doctors who have worked with Matheny. The two consider themselves brothers.

Chi said he admires Matheny's willingness to dedicate his life to testing prosthetics. Chi recently was asked to fill out a survey that asked who his hero was. He wrote down Matheny's name.

"It's that courage that really allows the medical community to move forward," Chi said.

Testing prosthetics was one thing, but Matheny wanted to do more. He started a foundation called the Starfish Prosthetics Foundation.

The foundation will raise money to allow other people to get these arms.

Matheny started working on the foundation last year. It's named after a starfish, one of few animals that can regrow a limb. Its mission is to improve the quality of life for people who have lost the function of an upper extremity.

"I want to pay my life forward, and I mean what better way to do something that's going to be able to help all amputees," Matheny said.

Matheny travels the country giving talks and demonstrations, and he's known for drawing a crowd.

In his life, Matheny said he has two rules: There's a reason for the season, and always have a positive mental attitude.

"No matter what comes your way, what smacks you in the butt, what knocks you down, be a rubber ball, bounce right back up, and find the positive side of things," Matheny said.

With this new arm, Matheny can do things he wasn't able to do before, like cooking. He also started taking piano lessons. He'd never played before. His goal is to finish one song and post a video of himself playing with his prosthetic arm on YouTube by the end of the year.

The piano in his house has numbered or lettered keys. He's gotten pretty good, he said, and he doesn't just use one or two fingers.

His first song is his father's favorite and one Matheny always wanted to learn to play: "Amazing Grace."

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