“Of course the prosthetist has one leg,” I thought to myself.
His name was Ken and he was big and loud and, honestly, kind of scary. He invited me back and I followed him through the halls of Aljan, the place where I’d received my prosthetics some twenty-five years ago.
I decided to go there again recently, not to get a new arm, but to do some reconnaissance work. I’m asked all the time about prosthetics and since I haven’t worn one in over twenty years, I figured it’d be good to bone-up on the subject.
The funny thing is, I drive by Aljan every week. And nearly every time for the last year I’ve thought to myself, “Dude, just make an appointment and go in.” I’m glad I finally did because I learned a lot.
For one thing, Ken said that the faster you get a prosthetic on a person, the more likely they’ll stick with it. We amputees are quite efficient at adapting, apparently. “If a recent amputee waits even a couple months, chances are they’ve already started adapting and won’t like a prosthetic arm,” Ken said. Of course, that’s a generalization, but one from a man with a lot of experience. As far as kids/infants go, he says this is the main reason they want to get one on them so quickly; not so much because it’ll help them, but because it’ll get them used to it. I asked if having a prosthetic arm on a small child helps with skeletal or muscle formation and he said he really didn’t think it did. “Most of the research doesn’t indicate that,” he said. He also said – which I can’t decide if I find surprising – that’s it’s very common for teens to “ditch the arm.” Teens are at that age where appearance is everything, right? So, why the decision to ditch that which “makes them look normal?” Very interesting.
According to Ken, the technology hasn’t improved a whole lot since I was a kid. In fact, I probably couldn’t use a myoelectric arm now unless I had the plate in my arm removed.
He said the iLimb is out there, but it’s not popular because it’s so much work to maintain and people can’t afford it. I asked why he thought the technology hasn’t improved and he gave me several answers. One is because the need for them is less than in the past. My eyebrows went up at his assertion, but then he explained that safety technology has improved so much that it’s virtually eliminated all of the factory and farming accidents that used to cause so many amputations. “What about the military?” I asked. He said that even the military sticks with the basics (for the most part). “You’ll see some bionic guy on the news every once in a while, but that costs a ton and really isn’t the norm,” he said.
The other disappointing fact here is that health insurance companies pay very little toward prosthetics. So, since the companies need to turn a profit, what sense does it make to pour money into research and product improvement when your clients can’t afford it and their insurance won’t pay for it? It doesn’t. To be honest, if I were to take up a cause, it might be this one. But, working in the industry for over seven years, I know I’d be banging my head against a wall. Someday, maybe. Thankfully there are organizations like the Shriners (and many others) to help.
Lastly, I asked about support groups. Ken told me there are no support groups in the Madison (WI) area. None. I asked why he thought that is and he said limb-differences are more accepted now than ever before. “We used to be the freaks in the corner. It’s not like that anymore,” he said. I tend to agree with him. Plus, with the advent of the internet, people can find support online in ways they couldn’t have twenty years ago. That said, there’s something to be said for interacting in real life, like I did at the Helping Hands Foundation‘s event a couple weeks ago. Those types of groups need to exist everywhere, in my opinion.
At the end of our visit, I shook hands with Ken and when I left, I felt more prepared. I also felt awkward because a guy was staring at me while I was writing notes in my car. That aside, what I learned confirmed my belief that parents of limb-different kids should just do what they think is best. Getting a prosthetic arm or not getting a prosthetic arm isn’t the end of the world. Plus, chances are (apparently) your kid might ditch it at some point anyway. If you want to try it, it sounds like the best idea is to get it on them early and then allow them to tell you how they feel about it as they grow-up.
Whatever you do, and I’ll say this until I’m dead, as long as you’re loving your kid when you make the decision…you’re doing the right thing. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Do your best and rest in the fact that you have an awesome kid who loves you no matter what.
Until they’re, like, thirteen. But, that’s not exclusively a limb thing.
Anyway…there you go.
What are your thoughts on and experiences with prosthetic limbs?