WINCHESTER — When a freak accident on Christmas Eve caused Don Thomas to lose his left hand, he didn’t know if he would be able to use his arm again.

But thanks to myoelectric technology, his muscles operate his new prosthetic arm.

Clinical specialists from German-based prosthetics and orthotics company Ottobock met the 70-year-old Thomas this week to test out his new prosthesis. Ottobock is responsible for several innovations in prosthetics. Its U.S. headquarters is in Austin, Texas.

Thomas, who lives near Stephens City, was cooking steak on a propane gas grill with a heavy cover on Christmas Eve when “the grill started to tip and I grabbed the edge of it to bring it back and the cover came down and trapped my hand,” he said on Wednesday at Cardinal Prosthetics and Orthotics on Valley Avenue. “Basically I went down with it and I yelled and my daughter came out and helped me get out of it.”

He was airlifted to the burn center at MedStar in Washington, D.C., where his badly burned left hand had to be amputated. His right hand had fourth-degree burns, and skin grafts were required.

Afterward, Thomas contacted Richard Churchill, owner of Cardinal Prosthetics and Orthotics, a full-service provider of prosthetic and orthotic services for adults and children. It was determined that Thomas’ best option would be to get a myoelectric prosthetic arm. Churchill then contacted Ottobock, saying he wanted Thomas to get the best possible prosthesis.

Myoelectric is the term for electric properties of muscles. A myoelectric-controlled prosthesis is an externally powered artificial limb that is controlled with the electrical signals generated naturally by a patient’s own muscles. A sensor inside the prosthetic socket receives electrical signals from the muscles and translates those signals into movements.

Ottobock Clinical Specialist Byron Backus said a myoelectric prosthesis has some advantages over a body-powered prosthesis, which relies on a system of cables or harnesses to control the limb. A myoelectric allows a person to use the same muscles he or she previously used to operate the arm, while the body-powered prosthesis requires them to operate and control the prosthetic arm using other parts of the body, such as the shoulders and upper body muscles. This requires the patient to learn an entirely new way to control his or her arm. A myoelectric prosthesis requires no straps or harnesses.

With a myoelectric arm prosthesis, a person can reach for a beverage and bring it to their lips.

“It’s constantly evolving, it’s getting better,” Backus said of the technology.

The arm Thomas was fitted with “has what they call sensor hand speed because it’s very fast. This one opens and closes within the same amount of time it would take an older myoelectric hand to just open.”

Ottobock has even more advanced myoelectric technology, but Thomas got what was fully covered by Medicare. The typical cost range for the type of prosthetic he received is $25,000 to $30,000.

On Tuesday, the Ottobock specialists hooked up Thomas to a computer so they could see his electrode signals at work on the computer screen when he moved his hand. Thomas will get an updated version of the hand later this year.

Although prosthesis technology has made great strides over the years, Backus believes there is room for more growth.

“I can see in the future getting to the point of not just different grip patterns, but potentially individual finger movement,” Backus said.

He also thinks technology will evolve so patients will be able to feel what they’re picking up with a prosthetic hand.

According to the Manassas-based Amputee Coalition, there are nearly 2 million people are living with limb loss in the United States. About 185,000 amputations occur annually in the U.S. The main causes of limb loss are vascular disease (54%), trauma (45%) and cancer (less than 2%).

Rhoda Rice, a certified hand therapist with Valley Health, will work with Thomas to help him get used to his myoelectric arm.

“Cosmetically it’s fantastic, the function of it,” Rice said. “Since it only involves the forearm, he has freedom of movement of all of the other areas of the body ... He is using the same muscles that did these activities previously. Eventually, it won’t be conscious for him anymore.”

Thomas said the new hand feels a little bit heavier than he anticipated, but appreciates that he will now be able to put his hand on the railing when going up stairs. Thomas joked with his wife Cindy that his hand may not be nimble enough to help make beds.

“I think you can try,” Cindy Thomas replied.

But he won’t be grilling on the grill that was involved in the accident. Thomas sold it on Craigslist for $40.

“I just really enjoy helping people,” Backus said. “Our mission statement is we strive to help people maintain and regain their freedom of independence”

— Contact Josh Janney at jjanney@winchesterstar.com

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