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Life of Normalcy Rests in His Palm
With Lifelike Prosthesis, No Stares

By Clarence Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 28, 2005

Brian Doyne steps up to the Starbucks counter, a cell phone wedged between his ear and left shoulder as he orders a grande mocha. An attractive blonde waiting nearby for her coffee sizes him up, from his calm gaze to the designer jeans, back to the sunglasses perched atop his carefully gelled hair.

The stranger's eyes stop for a vanishing moment at the scarred crevices across his face, where bomb fragments left their mark. But she doesn't notice his hand. No one seems to think anything of it.

After all, it's the mirror image of his perfectly unremarkable right hand, with the tiny creases on the fingers and the darker tones of the knuckles. Even on second glance, an onlooker would be hard-pressed to pick Doyne's real hand from the one fashioned from plastic, metal, a computer chip, electrical wiring and a skinlike silicon sleeve, lifelike down to the painstakingly painted freckles.

The months of work by skilled artists at Walter Reed Army Medical Center were worth it. Although Doyne has other lower-arm prostheses with greater capacity to grasp or manipulate objects, making them more useful, this hand offers a shining possibility: that for some moments, at least, he will not stand out in a crowd, or in a Starbucks line. For the reserved 26-year-old, the highest purpose the hand can serve is to shield him from the prying eyes of strangers, to protect the privacy he cherishes.

"It gives us some more normalcy in the way we're perceived," Doyne said of the soldiers such as himself who have lost limbs in Iraq. "It's a chance to get away from those questions."

On the Family Path

It was one of those odd twists of fate that the thing that finally gave Sgt. Brian Doyne a sense of purpose, his calling, was what nearly killed him.

From boyhood, his life seemed destined to be a military one, his parents said, after frequent uprootings as a child of a career infantry officer -- Germany, California, Pennsylvania, Kansas. He often played soldier alone. But as teen, he did not fit in, and he became a skinhead, not for the politics but for the camaraderie. He tattooed "hate" on his right bicep, "rage" on his left. He tried college but dropped out after a year and a half.

Seven years ago, he started down the path laid by his father and older brother Sean, now a military police captain deployed in Iraq: He enlisted in the Army, serving in the infantry and then as a recruiter.

Still, he didn't know what he wanted to do within the military.

In 2002, the bright guy who had grown up pulling apart toys and watches to see what made them work volunteered for bomb-squad training. The mission provided a sense of professionalism and was a perfect fit for someone with an often-morbid sense of humor. Operating robots and pulling wires appealed to the man who liked to use his hands.

"I think what changed him significantly was when he graduated," said his father, retired Col. William Doyne. "It became his life."

Doyne, who gradually shed his skinhead trappings, now had his sergeant's stripes. He was soon dispatched to Afghanistan. He was shot there -- he won't say how -- but it didn't shake his confidence. In February, he was sent to Iraq with the 797th Ordnance Company.

In 10 days, a bomb changed life again.

About 9 a.m. Feb. 24, Doyne's unit was dispatched south of Tikrit to investigate an improvised explosive device -- IED in Army parlance -- that had blown through an M1 Abrams tank. The soldiers started to sweep the area for secondary bombs.

As he went to retrieve his post-blast kit, Doyne's eardrums burst as a 155mm shell blew him into the sand 30 feet away. His closest friend was killed, and a second soldier was wounded.

"The world just kind of disappeared," Doyne said.

So did his military career.

Doyne suffered a list of injuries that could fill a hospital ward. Both legs shattered below the knee. Right ankle broken. Throat slashed by shrapnel. Fragments embedded in his cheek. Wounds in his thighs and arms. Collapsed left lung. Left eye socket fractured in four places. Optic nerve severed. Two teeth broken, two lost. Even the tip of his right index finger was blown off.

And his left hand was gone.

At Walter Reed, his first words, uttered in a painkiller-induced fog: "IEDs suck."

The Artists' Model

One morning about four months after the blast, Doyne sat in the occupational therapy center, reading a fantasy novel to pass the time.

He held the book with a prosthetic device that has a clamp, which replaces what was his dominant hand. Called a Grieffer, it is among the four types of hands Walter Reed has given him to perform tasks. Others include the cosmetic hand and a body-powered hand, which straps around his shoulders and torso, allowing him to perform strenuous tasks. Patients are also given a spare of each.

Wearing a black baseball cap that declares "IEDs Suck" -- military bomb experts from Pennsylvania had it made for him -- he held the hand he was born with open on a lamp-lit tabletop. At the moment, it was serving as a model for what would be his "normal" prosthetic hand. The skinlike hand was being painted by the artists this day.

The normal hand is less about functionality and more about how he presents himself to the world.

The hand -- an artificial sleeve that fits over a prosthetic-- was being created by a team from Alternative Prosthetic Services, founded 16 years ago by Michael Curtin after he was unable to make it as a sculptor in Manhattan. His Fairfield, Conn., firm is now one of about five worldwide that do similar work, Curtin said.

Before 4 a.m. every other Thursday, Curtin and members of his nine-person team load up his 2001 Toyota minivan to meet with patients at the hospital by 10 a.m. The artists -- including a former Hollywood makeup man -- stay for two days at a time. They have produced more than 50 sleeves for soldiers, Marines and airmen treated at the hospital since March 2004.

For Doyne's sleeve, Curtin already had made a wax impression of the right hand. A person's fingers on each hand are virtually identical but have opposite curvature, so the mold is reversed and a silicon mixture poured into it.

Now it was time to make the sleeve come alive. The implements of construction were scattered on the worktable: small paint jars, tiny brushes, X-ACTO knives, and the steady hand of artist Robert Rubino.

Rubino dabbed paint on the bone-white interior of Doyne's sleeve, mixing colors as he tried to match skin tones. With each brush stroke, Doyne's replacement hand became more lifelike. Red created the image of blood flow. A certain greenish-blue hue created the illusion of veins.

"The technique of painting inside a glove is something you have to learn on the job," Rubino said. "It's just a tricky process from start to finish."

The artists are so intent on re-creating the look of the original limb that they sometimes shave a patient's arm hair and glue it to the glove. They paint such distinctive marks as childhood scars and replacement tattoos. Doyne declined a surrogate for the one he lost: a depiction of the Grim Reaper wearing a gas mask and clutching an explosive ordnance-disposal badge.

The painting of the sleeve is tedious, both for artist and patient. Doyne broke the monotony by playfully offering his marital status (single) and Zodiac sign (Cancer) to a passing female hospital staffer.

Soldiers sit as models for four or five hours while the details are brushed in. From start to finish, the creation of a single "skin" for a replacement hand will take more than 60 hours of work.

The sleeve is then wrapped around the mannequin-style plastic hand, which itself encases a three-pronged "claw," the metallic skeleton. A computer chip in the hand reads the flex impulses from the patient's muscles, allowing the ability to grip, release or maneuver with the prosthetic.

Several weeks later, Doyne sat for the final fitting.

With glasses perched at the end of his nose, Curtin slid the sleeve over the prosthetic hand. The hand now held nearly identical creases of Doyne's intact hand. Each sandy-brown freckle was in place. The end of the sleeve abutted a black plastic forearm, and Doyne slipped its socket onto what remains of his left arm, just below the elbow.

Doyne inspected both palms as if he were trying on a new pair of shoes. He flexed his arm and spun the hand 360 degrees at the wrist as Curtin awaited the verdict.

"Well?" the former sculptor asked.

Slowly, shy smirks spread into a broad smile. "It'll hold a beer, I think," he laughed. "You got one?"

A Dr Pepper had to suffice. Doyne gripped the bottle. So far, so good. "I like it," Doyne said. "It's nice to have fingernails again. I can scratch. That's got to be one of the most annoying things, trying to scratch."

After advising Doyne to wash the sleeve with rubbing alcohol each day and not to put too much pressure on the hand, Curtin sent Doyne out into the rest of his life.

Setting New Goals

He is now in a new body and a new city and a new life. And he isn't looking back.

"Do I want my eye and arm back? Hell, yeah," he says. "Do I want my best friend back? Most definitely. I could fall to the ground and start kicking and screaming, but that won't change anything."

For months after the explosion, Doyne thought he would stay in the military. But he realized that if he was going to have to do a desk job, he might as well get a higher-paying one. So he has started a job as a civilian inspector of explosive devices at FBI headquarters in Quantico. He wore the "normal" hand with the sleeve at his interview.

And he has left Walter Reed. After nearly nine months there, he moved in early November to an apartment in Dumfries.

He's dating. He wants to keep up his old hobby of working on cars. He hopes to raise the money to buy a prosthetic for competition shooting.

He can take care of himself now, but he worries about his medical needs in the future. And he knows life will be different for a man with nine hands.

He hasn't used the "normal" hand much, maybe once or twice a week, when he goes out to local taverns. He can drive around town in his new Mitsubishi with it, his hands wrapped around the steering wheel. But when the time comes to take the parking ticket out of the machine in the garage with it, Doyne is out of luck.

As he had predicted, the hand is good mainly for making other people feel more comfortable. For him, it will never replace what he had.

"Normal" just isn't normal.

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