WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – A Haysville science teacher is about to become an experiment herself.
Sondra Stieber’s forearm, which had to be amputated last year, will be replaced by a robotic arm she’ll control with her mind.
She had broken her collarbone, and microscopic blood clots cut off circulation to her left arm.
“It just started to die right on the end of my arm,” said Stieber.
Doctors could only save a couple inches of the arm below the elbow. It was devastating to Stieber who was left-handed.
“I just felt really helpless,” said Stieber. “Really helpless and very limited.”
“We were talking about some options, maybe distraction lengthening, where you can lengthen the bone and make it longer,” said Dr. Joshua Linnell, a hand and microsurgeon at the Via Christi Clinic.
But what he calls her “stump” was just too short.
The alternative would have been a traditional prosthesis with a molded cup that mounts on her stump.
Amputees like Stieber must wear a harness around their shoulders to give them leverage to open and close the hook-like attachment on the prosthesis.
Dr. Linnell said it’s not too comfortable and is limited in its use. Holding a coffee cup, for example, would be difficult, if not impossible.
Without a prosthesis, Stieber has learned new ways to do many of her day-to-day chores, like dressing herself, but she still has trouble with zippers, buttons and rubber bands.
Her husband helps her open jars and devised some gadgets to help her chop vegetables when she cooks.
Back to the drawing board
In the meantime, Dr. Linnell went back to the drawing board, or in this case, the internet.
He reached out to other surgeons online about a procedure called osseointegration, inserting a prosthesis directly into a person’s bone so it becomes a permanent part of their body.
“In the United States, it’s still very new,” said Dr. Robert Rozbruch of the Hospital for Special Surgery.
He started using the procedure two years ago, mostly on leg amputees.
Because hands are more intricate, Stieber would be only his third patient to get a bionic, or myoelectric arm.
“It will be a relatively short prosthetic that’s going to be very, very sophisticated,” said Dr. Rozbruch.
It’s so advanced, a patient controls the hand just by thinking about it. The doctor tested Stieber to make sure she could do it.
“There’s a band that goes right around the arm at the level of those muscles, and it transmits the signals to the myoelectric prosthesis.”
During the test, it took Stieber awhile before she could make the prosthetic hand move, but eventually she was able to open and close the fist just by concentrating.
“So Dr. Rozbruch is like, ‘Congratulations, you’ll be a cyborg!'” laughed Stieber.
But she has a lot of work ahead. Her weak left arm must be able to support the weight of the prosthetic hand, more than three pounds.
The doctor will insert a metal rod in her bone next month, then wait three months for it to heal enough to attach the hand.
Stieber will have instant strength in her grip that she’ll have to learn to control. Otherwise, she would crush a can of pop she’s picking up.
“It’s like when you’re a kid watching ‘The Bionic Woman,’ and now it’s reality,” said Stieber, with a smile.
She can’t wait to share this with her students when she goes back to teaching.
“Who better than a science teacher to get this because students will be so fascinated by it!”
Stieber is still not sure whether her insurance company will cover the costs of the prosthesis so she’s fundraising until the surgery.
She has set up this Go Fund Me page to take donations.
Similar, but different
Some of you may be wondering if this is similar to Julie Dombo’s case. Dombo lost her hands and feet after being shot in a robbery in Derby in 2015.
Dombo says the difference between her prosthetic hands and what Stieber will be getting is that Dombo can slide hers on and off. It’s the traditional fit with a molded plastic cup. Sensors in the prosthesis pick up signals from her wrist muscles and move her hand and fingers.
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To learn more about osseointegration, watch the video below (it does include images from a surgery) or visit: Limb Salvage and Amputation Reconstruction Center at HSS.