Bionic limb proves an inspiration

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Johnny Nguyen of San Jose, Calif., lost half his left arm and all five fingers on his right hand in a car accident more than five years ago.

After making it through a 61/2 -month coma and 29 reconstructive surgeries, he tried to cope with an uncomfortable, ill-fitting hook prosthesis for a left arm. Naturally right-handed, Nguyen could perform only simple, stiff movements.

"The old prosthetic had no functionality whatsoever," said Nguyen, 24, who stopped wearing his "big hook" less than two months after leaving the hospital. But he couldn't afford anything better.

In July 2009, Zachary Hocker, a friend from childhood, began contacting companies, medical schools and research labs around the world to see if they could help. After about three months, Touch Bionics, a Scottish prosthetic company, learned about Nguyen's case and offered to give him a bionic right hand for free.

"He was such a unique case - a bilateral burn patient - that we felt that by fitting him we could gather information on how we could help others," said Karl Lindborg, lead clinician at the company's center in northern California.

Nguyen's situation has helped Touch Bionics develop the ProDigit limb. Weighing about a pound, it slides over the remnants of Nguyen's right hand.

All five digits move, controlled by muscle fibers in Nguyen's forearm that send electrical signals to the prosthesis. He can type with his index finger, pick up and hold delicate objects and open doors. He can grasp a pen and write.

"It still utilizes fairly well understood prosthetic principles," said Danny Sullivan, a Touch Bionics spokesman, "but it's the only fully articulating hand out there." The company said ProDigit devices similar to Nguyen's will cost up to $80,000, not including therapy and a custom covering.

Wanting to pay his gift forward to other amputees, Nguyen and three friends created the Bionic Touch Foundation in September. This nonprofit organization raises money to purchase bionic upper limbs for low-income amputees and for veterans who have lost arms or hands during their tours of duty. Those interested in getting assistance can send their stories to the group's Web site, www.bionictouchfoundation.org .

"I know what it feels like to feel helpless, hopeless," Nguyen said. "I am just trying to make it easier for the next person trapped in my situation."

- Leslie Tamura


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