Quadriplegic Able to Touch Girlfriend, Thanks to Robotic Arm

It’s a moment that many men take for granted, but for Tim Hemmes, touching his girlfriend’s hand was something he couldn’t do for seven years.

Hemmes, 30, was in a motorcycle accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down in 2004.  Although he considered himself “broken” after the accident, he always held out hope he would someday be able to experience everyday movements once again.

Back in August, Hemmes took part in a 30-day trial for an experimental new technology.  Doctors at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center gave Hemmes a robotic arm that he could control using his mind.

Through an electrode implanted on the surface of his brain, Hemmes used his thoughts to move a ball on the computer screen, which in turn, moved the arm.

Just a few days after the surgery, after a lot of intense concentration and brain training, he was able to high-five a researcher and then share a tender moment with his girlfriend.

“Everybody cheered when I touched the researcher,” Hemmes said.  “What was I feeling?  That word doesn’t exist.  It was just pure emotion running through me.  Then, my girlfriend told me to hold her hand.  I have never been able to reach out to her or rub her hand.”

“We were thrilled with the progress he made during the trial,” said Dr. Michael Boninger, director of the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute and professor and chair of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.  “When we have a patient who has a spinal cord injury or a high-level amputation, the hardest thing is to enable them to control a device.”

The technology is in its very early stages, Boninger said, and he hopes the electrode can someday be wireless, will eventually allow patients to move their muscles strictly by thinking about it and that patients who use robotic limbs will be able to feel what they’re doing.

“I think the potential here in seeing [Hemmes] and his determination, and how his face lit up when he touched someone is an amazing thing,” he said.  “This technology has the potential to be transformative.”

Hemmes hopes he can continue progressing toward his goal, which he says is “100 percent recovery.”  While it may not have been his arm that touched his girlfriend, it was his brain that controlled the movements.

“I have to get my arms back,” he said.  “I have to hug my daughter and hold her one more time.  The last person I felt before my accident was my daughter.  She was 18 months old at the time, and I laid her down to sleep.”

He wants to tell others who have suffered similar injuries that they should never give up.

“I believe this could help, and I believe there is hope.”