June 30, 2005 — -- Jesse Sullivan loved fishing and camping and, especially, hanging out with his grandson. But when Sullivan lost both his arms in a tragic accident in 2001, he thought his life had changed forever.
Just four years after the devastating loss, advancements in prosthetic technology are giving Sullivan a second chance. The new $6 million bionic arm he's received may help revolutionize the treatment of victims of stroke, lost limbs and paralysis.
Sullivan repaired power lines for the Tennessee Power Company and lost his arms after touching a live wire carrying 7,400 volts of electricity.
After the accident, Dr. Todd Kuiken of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, pulled out four main nerves that used to connect to Sullivan's arms and fastened them just beneath the skin on his chest. He attached the bionic arm in place of his amputated left arm.
Sullivan's prosthesis has a computer in the forearm that is wired to a mechanical hand and to a "plunger" device on his chest. The hand sends signals up the wires to the plunger, which pushes the skin. That stimulates the nerves in his chest to transmit sensations to the brain as if the nerves were still connected to his real hand.
The bionic arm allows Sullivan to bend his elbow and open and close his hand. He can even move his limb by thought and feel hot and cold.
"When we put the nerve from his arm into the chest, the skin of his chest was also connected to the skin nerve," Kuiken said. "It's kind of like having his hand on his chest. His prosthesis has sensors that press on his chest to the right spot so he can feel how hard he's squeezing on an object."
Sullivan can do the dishes, pick up a bottle of water and shave with an electric razor. He is hoping to tie his shoes some day soon.
Doctors say he is the only person in the world who has that capability in a prosthetic arm. When the arm is perfected, it should cost about $6 million.
Four other patients have undergone the procedure, one with a shoulder amputation and three with above elbow amputations.
Right now, the procedure performed is limited to amputated arms, but doctors hope that one day it can apply to legs as well.