Roger Thomas: A Light-Year Leap
January 2011 Issue
Roger Thomas is a hand model. But you won't find him on television showcasing hand emollients or dishwashing soap that soften hands while you do the dishes. Rather, Thomas wears and models the i-LIMB Pulse prosthetic hand, manufactured by Touch Bionics, Livingston, Scotland. As the first person in the United States to wear the i-LIMB Pulse, he joined Touch Bionics at the National Assembly of the American Orthotic & Prosthetic Association (AOPA) this past September to showcase the hand's merits. With a welcome smile and a firm handshake, he challenged attendees to try to remove a spongy ball he gripped firmly with his prosthesis. More often than not, they failed to pry it from his clenched bionic fingers.
The leap from a body-powered to a myoelectric-controlled prosthesis was a major one for Thomas. For more than 25 years, Thomas had been a user and avid proponent of body-powered upper-limb prostheses, saying that he felt 1980s myolelectric technology "was no better than a lobster claw." Two years ago, however, Thomas decided the technology had advanced to the point where he felt comfortable taking the leap to myoelectric control.
Before his amputation, Thomas was a lance corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC), stationed at the USMC Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, California. In March of 1983, while participating in a simulated combat exercise with his platoon, he unknowingly double-fed an 81mm mortar, which resulted in the loss of his right hand a few centimeters above the wrist. As the assistant gunner, Thomas was responsible for loading ammunition and firing the weapon. "Once I dropped the round, the gun belonged to the gunner," Thomas explains. "It was his responsibility to call 'hang fire' [if there is a misfire]," Thomas says. "He didn't realize that the round had hung up inside the tube, and so I...loaded the second round and two rounds went down the range along with my hand. The good part about a mortar [after it's fired] is the muzzle flash.... Basically, it cauterized [my wound]. You know, you have to look at the silver linings in those things."
Thomas' recovery was short—he was out of the military hospital in about two weeks, back home a week after that, and retired from the Marines on May 1 of that same year, he says.
Thomas returned to his hometown of Loveland, Colorado, and moved back in with his parents, where, he says he "spent...about three months in a bathrobe. I was 21 when it happened," he explains.
And then things started to look up. His former high school diving coach, Kevin Polansky, heard Thomas was back in town and hired him to be the springboard diving coach for Loveland High School—a sport he had participated in while attending high school there during the late 1970s. Second, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offered Thomas the opportunity to attend school. "I got my feet back under me; I got myself motivated to face the world again," Thomas recalls.
That fall, Thomas enrolled in the University of Northern Colorado (UNC), Greeley, and began coaching high school springboard diving. He says that by the time he graduated in 1985—having fast-tracked through a bachelor of science degree in information systems management—he was coaching springboard diving at the two Loveland high schools and three junior high schools.
Some are better at doing, and some are better at teaching. When it comes to springboard diving, Thomas says he was better at the latter. Rather than demonstrating dives, he says he taught his athletes to use visualization—a technique that would eventually serve him well. "I could explain what the student should be feeling as the dive was performed," he says.
At the time, Thomas was wearing a body-powered Hosmer Dorrance hand, Campbell, California, despite the VA's offer to fit him with a myoelectric device. However, as a result of his participation in a Colorado State University, Ft. Collins, "upper-limb, below-elbow" prosthetics-research project, Thomas says he traded in the Hosmer Dorrance hand for a Grip 3 from TRS, Boulder, Colorado, the newest in body-powered, prosthetic-hand technology at the time. The Grip 3 served him well for more than 25 years.
"The Grip 3 is active," Thomas explains. "[Because] I...had to use my muscles to use the prosthesis...I realized I had to find a way to keep them in use on that side of my body."
Thomas had additional motivation for exercising his muscles. Like many kids and teenagers growing up during the late 1970s, he had been a Star Wars fan. One particular scene in The Empire Strikes Back kept coming to mind—the well-known scene in which Luke Skywalker is fitted with a mechanical hand that looks and works just like his natural one, including full sensory perception. "With my educational background, I thought to myself 'someday that [technology] will be there...,'" he recalls. To ready himself for that time, Thomas says that "every night I would go to bed, and before I would go to sleep I would have my eyes closed and would...move my fingers and my arm...."
Light Years Ahead
Thomas' patience and visualization work paid off in 2009, when he walked into the office of Waldo Esparza, CP, at Tampa Bay Prosthetics, Florida, to have his socket and body-powered prosthesis evaluated.
Esparza says, "My responsibility as a clinician...is to educate.... [Patients] have to know what's being developed, what's current, [and] what to expect in the future that may impact the quality of their life." So Esparza brought up the topic of myoelectric hands to Thomas.
"I don't want that crap," Thomas replied.
However, after Esparza showed him the latest devices for upper-limb prothesis users, Thomas was sold. So, Esparza hooked Thomas up to a biofeedback machine. "The common extensors and the common flexors of the wrist were still intact in his forearm, and he could create very good... myoelectric signals," Esparza says. Thanks to his years of nighttime training, Thomas was a good candidate for a myoelectric hand.
The VA approved Thomas for a basic myoelectric prosthesis and soon thereafter for the i-LIMB. "It was cool," Thomas says. "It was the first time in 20-some years that I'd seen myself with something that actually looked like two hands."
As an i-LIMB wearer, Thomas provided the VA, Touch Bionics, and Esparza with feedback about the device's performance and fit. He also participated in a DEKA research program, for which he had to attend 21 occupational therapy sessions and test the DEKA hand doing many different tasks, Thomas says.
"Going from a body-driven...device...Roger literally advanced in light years to state-of-the-art prosthetic management for his level of amputation," Esparza says.
Thomas liked the i-LIMB so much that when he found out that Touch Bionics was planning to release the i-LIMB Pulse in 2010, he "kept bugging [Bill Graham, Touch Bionics' North American distribution manager] by e-mail," Thomas says. "I was able to put my Pulse hand on my socket on September 7, ."
Thomas says he had never felt limited in his range of activities when using a body-powered prosthesis—he's been Olympic sport fencing for about four years and had been learning to sail; however, wearing a myoelectric hand has brought positive changes.
"It's like almost having a hand...and my life has opened up more," Thomas says. "I now volunteer at St. Petersburg College, [Florida,] for the prosthetics program, where students can cast me and build a socket and so on. I go to conventions, and I'm more open to talking about the changes that this hand has given me. Yes, I said 'hand' and not prosthesis as I see this as my hand. It's nice to finally have it back, but I can't wait for the next improvement as that is something my flesh and blood hand could never do."
Laura Hochnadel can be reached at