Sgt. 1st Class Edgar Barrera lost his left hand and both legs in a roadside bomb attack in Afghanistan. (Jennifer Rodriguez / Army)
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JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, TEXAS — Sgt. 1st Class Edgar Barrera lost his left hand and both of his legs to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan, and now a set of groundbreaking prosthetic hands is helping him regain his independence.
“It was foreign,” Barrera said of being fitted with prosthetic hands. (Barrera is missing one hand but has multiple prosthetics designed for different tasks.) “It’s never going to be your real hand.”
But after just a few months, using his prosthetic hands hasbecome “second nature” to him, said Barrera, of 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, who was wounded July 7.
He can make a fist, pick up a cup, rotate his wrist, hold a smartphone, shake your hand, point his index finger, and even manipulate the prosthetic fingers to help fasten buttons and pull up zippers — a far cry from the traditional hooklike prosthetics commonly used by amputees who have lost an arm or a hand.
Service members who’ve suffered upper extremity amputations are believed to make up about 15 percent of the more than 1,700 amputees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Ryan Blanck, a clinical and research prosthetist at the Center for theIntrepid.
“In the prosthetics world, there are more options than 10 years ago,” he said. “The technology has advanced exponentially.”
The hands Blanck is fitting on his patients come from three manufacturers, but they each offer more flexibility, agility and function. They also can cost up to $90,000 commercially.
So far, Blanck said he has about 30 patients using these hands.
■The Michelangelo is made by leading prosthetics maker Ottobock. The Center for the Intrepid has had it for a year, Blanck said, but it has been available in the civilian market for less than two months.
The Michelangelo is the only prosthetic hand with a thumb that electronically moves into position, enabling it to function more like a human hand, according to the website for Advanced Arm Dynamics, which was involved in research, development and testing for the prosthetic.
The Michelangelo features multiple grip functions, allowing the user to master everyday tasks. The thumb also opens up to create a natural palm shape.
■The i-limb ultra revolution, made by Touch Bionics, has a powered rotating thumb, and each finger bends at the natural joints so it can adapt to fit around the shape of whatever object the user is grasping.
The i-limb also can be programmed to perform as many as 24 grasp patterns, and the electrodes are waterproof, lower profile and gold-plated for higher sensitivity, according to Touch Bionics.
Blanck first used the new, most advanced version of the i-limb on his patients six months ago.
■The bebionic myoelectric prosthetic hand is made by RSL Steeper. Blanck is using the third-generation bebionic, which he got two months ago, on his patients.
The hand has individual motors in each finger, 14 programmable grip patterns and hand positions, an auto grip that senses when an item is slipping and adjusts to secure it, foldaway fingers for natural-looking movement, and soft finger pads to maximize surface area and enhance the grip, according to the company’s website.
Blanck credits wounded troops such as Barrera, who keep pushing the boundaries, for helping spur the advances in technology.
“One of the benefits of the ugly side of war is the advancements,” Blanck said. “What these guys are doing, the prosthetics technology had to keep up.”
Marine Cpl. Sebastian Gallegos, from 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, was wounded Oct. 16, 2010, in Afghanistan’s Sangin district.
Gallegos lost his right arm above the elbow in a blast that killed his squad leader.
“When I came in, the i-limb was really, really new, and everyone used claws,” he said. “It’s funny how the technology has changed, especially for above-the-elbow guys.”
Because so much of Gallegos’ arm had to be amputated, surgeons had to reconnect and rework some of his major nerves so he could operate a prosthetic hand.
“Some things are twice as hard. Some things are almost impossible to do without two hands,” he said.
After he was wounded, Gallegos took up kayaking — something he never did when he had both arms.
He has a variety of prosthetics for different activities, and Gallegos makes it a habit to wear his prosthetic hands, which attach to a specially made hybrid arm, almost all day, every day. And he plugs them in at night.
“I plug in my cellphone for the night, and I charge my arms for the night,” he said.
Blanck said his job is to “never say no” and help the recovering wounded warriors achieve their goals.
“Every person’s different. You let them write their own road to recovery … and help them achieve the function they desire,” he said. “If someone says ‘I want to do this,’ what we’re going to do is find a way. Each of these patients drives the next thing.”■