The Most Advanced Amputee In The World!
“What the heck’s going on out here?” My husband Neil had come outside to check on me. It was around 6 o’clock in the morning, just before dawn, on July 25, 2015 when I let our dogs Vincent and Vivian out in our backyard. I was half-asleep. It was still dark outside and I wasn’t really paying much attention to anything when I suddenly heard this horrible, screeching noise.
I went over to my dogs and there was a raccoon on the ground. I tried to rear the dogs back a little bit and shoo him up the garden fence. But when he got to the top Vivian grabbed him by the tail and pulled him back down. They both went in for the kill and when I went to grab their collars to get them off him, he latched on to me. The bite felt like electricity bolts shooting up my arm.
Despite the pain I scooped the raccoon up and threw him over the fence. I looked down and saw that both my arms were covered in blood where he had scratched me. There was also a bite on my right arm. That’s when Neil came outside.
“I got in an argument with a raccoon,” I told him. “We’ve got to get you to the hospital,” he said. But I argued, “It’s not that bad. It’s no big deal.” Neil said, “You’ve got to get a rabies shot.”
The bite wasn’t that big at all, not even an inch in size. We went to the hospital. They gave me a rabies shot, put me on antibiotics and sent me home. I took a nap and got up to go to work at the assisted living facility where I work as a food service director. That was a Saturday and the pain was a three or four on a scale of one to 10. But on the Monday after I got home from work my arm was still hurting. The pain had shot up to an eight. My arm was starting to swell and was getting pretty red.
I went to the local emergency medical centre and they told me that I hadn’t been on the antibiotics long enough for them to get into my system. It was no big deal. “Give it a few more days,” the doctor said before sending me home. But by Wednesday, when I still wasn’t feeling any better, my arm turned all red.
I went back to the emergency room where they put me on a different antibiotic and diagnosed me with cellulitis – a skin infection. They promised that it would clear it up and recommended that I follow up with my family doctor. I saw my GP that Friday and he recommended that I see an orthopaedic doctor, who cleaned my wound, irrigating and draining it, before dressing it.
But it didn’t get better and by the time I went back a week later my whole forearm was bright red and hot to touch. At this point I couldn’t even move my fingers. When the two doctors unwrapped my arm, they looked at each other and I knew something wasn’t right. They sent me to a hospital to receive IV antibiotics and then I was referred to a local orthopaedic surgeon – Dr Ajay Seth.
“This isn’t right,” I thought. I was so scared. It was two weeks since the raccoon bit me and my arm didn’t seem to be getting any better. “This is taking too long to heal,” I said to myself. But when I saw Dr Seth he reassured me that everything would be okay. “We’re going to clean the wound out,” he told me. “It’s no big deal. I’ve done this hundreds of times. It will take about 15 minutes and you’ll probably be going home tomorrow.”I was relieved. It was going to be okay.
When I woke up from the general anaesthesia later on that day, Dr Seth had bad news. He said the infection was worse than he thought. “I ended up being in there for 90 minutes,” he said. “It’s the worst infection I’ve ever seen. It looks like tapioca pudding. I just kept scraping and scraping it and it wouldn’t go away. Let it sit for 24 more hours and then we can go in again and try to get the rest of it.”
I was on so many antibiotics and the team did lots of tests but to this day they still don’t know what the infection was. All we knew is that I was getting weaker and weaker. I was moved into the ICU. By then I was pretty in and out. Drugged up, I slept all day. “This is what it feels like to die,” I thought, as I lay there with a sharp, hot pain throbbing through my arm.
One day Dr Seth’s colleagues called him and warned him that the infection had got so bad that my organs were shutting down one by one. “If you don’t amputate this girl’s arm she is going to die before the afternoon is up,” they told him. It was almost a month to the day since I was bitten that Dr Seth told me, “I know I told you I could save your arm, but I just couldn’t do it.” “That’s okay,” I said. “Just save my life.”
Within minutes I was back in surgery again having my arm amputated. I was probably in shock, although deep down inside I knew it was coming. I just didn’t want to face it. I told myself, “This is what has to be done. It’s my arm or life.” Neil agreed. It was almost a relief at that point.
When I left hospital, two weeks after my arm was amputated I had to learn how to do things again – like bathing myself and doing basic chores. I was really weak. It was an effort to get up and get dressed in the morning. It was awful. It took me an hour just to have a sponge bath, get dressed and get back on the couch.
I didn’t really know what type of prosthetic arm to expect. Neither did Dr Seth, because I was his first amputee. But one day when I was in hospital, Neil and I saw a picture of a really cool robotic hand. “I want one of those,” I told Dr Seth, who said, “okay, sure.”Later on he told me he walked out of the room and said, “Now what did I just promise this girl. I don’t know anything about robotic arms!”
But two weeks later he found out about these radical procedures – targeted muscle re-innervation (TMR) and target sensory re-innervation (TSR). “I’ve learned about this really cool surgery and there’s a possibility you will be able to feel with a prosthetic hand,” he told me. I was really excited. The TMR had only been done a few times in the US but TSR had never been done here before.
That December I had the surgery. Dr Seth rerouted the nerves where my arm had been amputated to trick my brain into thinking that, not only did I still have a hand but also I could move it with the power of my mind. With the help of a Bluetooth device and a state of the art prosthetic arm, I’d even be able to feel touch.
In May 2016 we went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland where I got to test a modular prosthetic arm as part of some research. Dr Seth was there as a MYO band was put around my arm, above the amputation. It’s run by a Bluetooth device, which picks up the signals in my muscles and works with the computer in the prosthetic arm so that I can move it with my mind.
It was amazing. Freaky. I sat there, across the room from the prosthetic arm, which wasn’t attached to me, as I played with rubber balls and picked up water bottles. I even picked up a Styrofoam cup. With a normal prosthetic hands that’s hard to do without crushing it because you never know when to stop. But with this arm, as soon as the fingers touched it I felt a buzzing sensation that let me know when to stop. I could even feel and shake Neil’s hand with my right arm for the first time since it had been amputated.
That was very, very emotional. At first I was nervous because I thought I was going to crush his hand, but I could feel the buzzing sensation as we touched. I could feel my husband’s hand touching mine. I felt a bit like the Bionic Woman.
Back when I showed him the robotic arm that I wanted Dr Seth told me that he would make me the ‘most advanced amputee in the world’. And with my ability to feel touch, hold and move my prosthetic arm and fingers with my mind, that’s what he and the researchers say I am.
They’re still working on the arm, to build a more lightweight one that I can take home. But, in the meantime, I’ve got another one, which once it’s attached, allows me to move it with the power of my mind. It hasn’t got the Bluetooth device but it’s mechanical. It has a powered elbow and wrist and has to be charged up at night.