Change of Hands

Eric Jones
Upon meeting Passero, Jones knew he understood the fit and function he was seeking.
Images: Touch Bionics.

Eric Jones considers himself lucky. First, he beat cancer — twice. About 24 years ago he had Hodgkin’s disease, and about 7 years ago, lymphoma.

The treatments weakened his body, however, and took his spleen, and one day in April 2007, his health took a turn to streptococcus pneumoniae within the span of about 12 hours. Without a strong immune system, this illness became sepsis and disseminated intravascular coagulation, a serious clotting disorder that cuts off blood supply to the major organs and extremities.

“Most people die,” Jones said. “I was fortunate to make it.”

Good fortune

Not-so fortunately, he lost his toes and part of the bottoms of his feet, and all five fingers on his right hand as “collateral damage,” and the functionality of his left hand was severely damaged.

He spent 3 months recovering in the hospital and returned home determined to find a prosthetic device that would return him to full functionality.

“I’m the kind of person who takes matters into his or her own hands,” he said. “I think whenever you’re dealing with your own body and medical maladies, you have to do that.”

He searched the Internet and found Touch Bionics, maker of the fully articulating i-LIMB Hand. Jones had his hand — all he needed were fingers — but thought the company might be able to adapt this device to make it work for him.

He decided to find out. The closest i-LIMB Hand-accredited O&P practice to his home just outside New York City in Mamaroneck, N.Y., was Prosthetic & Orthotic Associates (POA) in Middletown, where he met Thomas Passero, CP.

Bionic hand

Eric Jones
Since receiving his new prosthesis, Jones aims to speak to other amputees about life-changing devices.

“Part of the dynamic aspect of what we did for Eric was based on the fact that, up to the time we started with him, had he gone to any prosthetic facility in the world, he would have been told, ‘There’s really nothing that we can do for you,’” Passero, president and clinical director of POA, said.

At that time, Passero was working with Touch Bionics on a prototype for ProDigits, a device for partial hand amputees that uses the same articulating digit technology as the i-LIMB Hand. ProDigits works with myoelectric controls and can be fit to amputees missing between one and five fingers.

Passero, who serves as director of clinical communication for Touch Bionics, helped Jones become one of only about a dozen test patients in the world for the new device. He received the first version, with a thumb that was capable of only two fixed positions and adjusted manually, in December 2008. Jones controlled the movement of the fingers on this prototype through touch pads on his residual limb. Another version used myoelectric control instead of the touch pads; he received this device in September 2009.

“One thing that I didn’t have until I got the Touch Bionics hand was the ability to grip. The ability to pick something up, walk across the room and put it down,” he said. “To pour a cup of coffee in the kitchen, to pick it up and walk it over to the table and put it down and have breakfast.”

The ability to grip in this way helps Jones because, although he has a sound hand, he walks with a crutch in his left hand, and therefore cannot use that hand to carry objects.

“It’s not that earth-shattering, but for someone like me, it’s immensely helpful.”

Multifaceted solution

Passero said that, for the partial hand amputee population, the device becomes such a part of the patient because hand function is so difficult to replicate. For most lower extremity amputees, like Passero, one prosthesis usually is appropriate for everyday life. Upper extremity amputees, however, face a host of challenges in completing even routine tasks, and often need more than one device to accomplish them.

Jones had been looking for cutting-edge solutions for those everyday duties. With help from POA, Jones has since learned the easiest ways — for him — to complete activities.

Prior to his amputation, Jones was right-handed, but had taught himself to write and eat with his left hand. POA introduced him to adaptive devices to further these abilities.

He can slice meat on his dinner plate with ProDigits, for example, but instead uses the N-Abler device by Texas Assistive Devices, which offers a knife attachment.

“[After] my first meeting, I left there so excited that I absolutely found the right people to help me out. They got it, and I knew it,” he said.

Jones’ eagerness showed, and his willingness and open mind provided some extra motivation for the POA team.

“Here’s a patient who has had this terrible thing happen to him, and what he brings with him is a combination of good communication skills and an unbelievably positive attitude, a big smile on his face, a lot of hope in his voice,” Passero told O&P Business News. “I think that the enthusiasm and determination that Eric brought to the table from the day we met him, coupled with the fact that we did not have to tell him, ‘I’m sorry we can’t help you,’ was a big part of the pleasure of the experience.”

Passero worked with his clinical team, including lead clinician Jason Silke, CPO, to find the socket designs and control strategies that worked best for Jones.

Realistic expectations

Another benefit of the partnership between Jones and Passero was their ability to communicate with each other. Since Passero had the personal experience of being an amputee as well as a clinician, and Jones made his living in the field of public relations, both were able to approach this professional relationship honestly and avoid misconceptions and disappointment.

“I try very hard to understand the expectation of the patient,” Passero said. “Sometimes that expectation can be far higher than the reality of the treatment.”

Jones, on the other hand, simply wanted to restore as many functional characteristics of his amputated hand as technology could provide, he said.

On their first meeting, Passero offered his approach to hand care: No single prosthesis can address the multiple deficits associated with upper extremity limb loss. Jones takes this motto with him each day, using his N-Abler device to beat eggs when making breakfast for his children, and switching to his ProDigits device to build with Legos when playing with them.

When considering what abilities are necessary for a task before beginning it, he faces fewer limitations in what he can accomplish, Passero said.

A stay-at-home dad and freelance writer, Jones, now 42, said he looks forward to continue to do these activities, and spread the word to other amputees that devices like these can change lives.

“I am a very satisfied customer, very satisfied patient,” he said. “I’m just like everybody else — you’re always waiting for the next exciting technological development to come through.”

He said he jokes with Passero that he wants a myoelectric device that can help him do the dishes.

“You start to think to yourself, what else could they do? It just goes on and on.” — by Stephanie Z. Pavlou, ELS

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