Jodie O’Connell-Ponkos: Prosthesis Helps Equestrian Do What She Loves

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By Tara McMeekin

Since she lost her hand in a meat grinder accident in 1995 at the age of 16, it has never occurred to Jodie O'Connell-Ponkos to give up. Instead, when she reflects on that day, she is grateful that the scenario played out as it did. She counts everything from the shirt she wore that morning to the quick action of a store customer who jumped in to help as factors that helped save her life.

On that particular day, O'Connell-Ponkos went to work at a general store in the seaside town of Branford, Connecticut.

"Being so near the beach, it was a busy day," she says. "I remember getting dressed for work. I took off my class ring and changed into a short-sleeved shirt—both decisions that saved my life ultimately."

O'Connell-Ponkos was waiting on a customer and, focused on what he was saying, accidentally put her right hand too far into the meat grinder. The grinder caught her fingertip. Unable to free her hand, she could not reach the off switch or the power cord with her other hand. Ultimately, a customer was able to shut the meat grinder off.

The local hospital expected O'Connell-Ponkos to be dead on arrival due to blood loss, but because of the way the pressure of the machine affected her blood vessels, her blood loss was minimal—a sort of miracle in the midst of disaster. Ultimately, she underwent a transradial amputation, about four inches below the elbow on her right side.

No Giving Up

"My dad was my savior," she recalls. "He looked at me at one point and said, ‘You're really going to be okay,' and I believed that. He was 100 percent Irish, and there was no giving up in his eyes. That helped me immensely."

Sharing her father's spirit of perseverance, O'Connell-Ponkos was out of the hospital in a week. That's not to say there weren't difficult moments, including the first time she looked in the mirror and saw herself without her hand, and the first time she went to open the refrigerator and realized she no longer had her dominant hand.

Still, just four weeks after leaving the hospital, O'Connell-Ponkos was doing things that amazed her family, friends, and physicians—namely, riding horses. Her love of horses not only aided in her own healing after the loss of her hand, but eventually led her to found Destiny's Ride, an organization that offers therapeutic horse riding for children with autism and other disabilities.

In addition to getting right back on a horse, O'Connell-Ponkos also went forward with plans to join the swim team, which she had signed up for prior to the accident.

Searching for the Right Solution

For all that was going well in O'Connell-Ponkos' recovery, she struggled to find a suitable prosthetic solution. Initially she was fitted with a basic device that was meant to mimic opening and closing of the hand. But she learned that she had poor muscle isolation, which made using the prosthesis challenging.

"I couldn't get it to work, and I was frustrated," she says. "I threw it more than I wore it."

Finding something more functional was a challenge in the pre-internet era without easy access to information. For many years, O'Connell-Ponkos went without a functional prosthesis and would wear the one she had mostly for cosmetic purposes.

O'Connell-Ponkos went on to college and pursued a degree in fashion merchandising. Then, years later in January 2015, she began researching developments in prosthetic devices, which led her to Handspring Clinical Services, headquartered in Middletown, New York.

"At that point I decided I wanted to get a hand," she recalls.

Before her first appointment, she says she thought it was going to be similar to her previous experience.

But her feelings changed when the clinician put a cuff around her residual limb, showed a virtual hand on a computer screen, and asked O'Connell-Ponkos to try simulating supination and pronation of the virtual hand.

"I was able to do it right away and I was amazed," she says. "By the end of June 2015, I was wearing the hand every day."

At the crux of the movement capability is pattern recognition myoelectric control technology from Chicago-based Coapt. Basic myoelectric technology was first used more than 50 years ago, but the enhancement of pattern recognition technology has changed the control experience for users. Coapt combined pattern recognition and myoelectric control technologies in its Complete Control system in 2013. The company's pattern recognition technology uses machine learning to identify a patient's muscle patterns whenever a certain movement is made, allowing the prosthesis to make the intended movement each time that muscle pattern occurs.

"What we have developed with researchers around the world is a modern way to provide intuitive control for powered prosthetic devices in users' daily lives," says Blair Lock, CEO of Coapt. "This module we've built uses [artificial intelligence]-like algorithms that can decode the signals coming from the residual limb of an amputee. It can then tell the prosthesis what motion it is that the user is trying to do—whether that's making a hand gesture, or rotating a wrist, or bending an elbow, for example."

Lock compares the muscle information from the body to music and says that in the earliest forms of myoelectric control, systems were only hearing the volume of sounds from users' muscles, but pattern recognition technology is akin to also hearing the tone, dynamics, and melody that make up of the full experience of music.

The Coapt technology integrates with the Ottobock bebionic and the Motion Control wrist prosthesis provided by the Handspring rehabilitation team that O'Connell-Ponkos uses.

"The huge benefit of this technology with our solution and Coapt technology is that it can pick up lower levels of myoelectric signals than the thresholds conventional myoelectrodes detect when used for single- or dual-site systems," says Erik Tompkins, CP, BOCO, at Handspring's Kingston, New York, facility. "Jodie has a transradial external-powered prosthesis that uses the Coapt Control to open and close the hand and rotate the wrist."

In the past, Tompkins says switching modes from operating the hand to operating the wrist to operating the elbow was a far more complex process. With those issues solved, however, he says O'Connell-Ponkos' biggest challenges now are related to her penchant for pushing her prosthetic technologies to their limits.

"She didn't see any of the boundaries and wanted to be able to do every-thing, and this allowed her to do more tasks, more naturally, around her house and her farm where she has horses," he says. "Thirty years after her injury she was able to pick up all of these things like she'd been doing them the whole time."

Getting Comfortable

O'Connell-Ponkos has been amazed at how quickly she's been able to do a variety of things with her prosthesis. She began wearing the device daily almost immediately and was thrilled to be able to cut apples and cook—things she hadn't done for years. Within six months she says she learned how to put her hair in a ponytail.

She is also able to calibrate the hand herself to account for changes in limb volume, which can affect how the socket fits.

"The technology that has enabled me to be in that spot where I can manage things on my own has changed my life," she says. "I am 50 years old. I was 47 when I got this, and I am excited to wear it and make it a part of my everyday life."

O'Connell-Ponkos' experience has been so life-changing, in fact, that it's prompted her to help others. She approached Tompkins and Handspring and began advocating her prosthetic solutions for other patients. Currently, she is seeking certification in occupational therapy to further benefit people who have amputations.

"I want to inspire and educate others and let them know that they are not alone," she says. "We can all make a difference, and there are companies out there that are really listening and trying to help us enhance our lives."

As far as her advice on staying positive, O'Connell-Ponkos says it's important to find support and ask for help when you need it—whether from families, friends, or a support group.

"Go to the Amputee Coalition and find another amputee that can listen and talk to you and so you don't feel alone," she says. "Others can't fix it for you, but they can offer you encouragement, and knowing somebody cares makes the world better."

O'Connell-Ponkos says it's important to remember that the people who are there for you and care for you do so out of love.

"Don't push them away—allow them to help," she says. "That was one of the hardest lessons I had to learn." 

Tara McMeekin is a writer and editor based in Parker, Colorado.