May 17, 2013 at 8:49 AM ET
In a major milestone, Aimee Copeland, the Georgia graduate student who contracted flesh-eating bacteria after a zip-lining accident, is learning to use two state-of-the art prosthetic hands.
The high-tech hands may one day allow her to do the kinds of things most of us take for granted: cooking, cleaning, driving a car.
In May 2012, a wound Copeland sustained in her accident developed necrotizing fasciitis, the clinical name for flesh-eating bacteria. That infection nearly killed her. To save Copeland’s life, doctors had to amputate her left leg, right foot, and both hands.
It’s been a long road coming back from that.
“Sometimes I wake up and I’m just like, ‘Oh my God, is this my life?’” Copeland laughed as she spoke to NBC’s Gabe Gutierrez in a segment that aired on TODAY Friday. “This is crazy!"
The good news for Copeland is the field of prosthetics has made remarkable advances in recent decades.
Eventually she should be able to do with her prosthetic hands “pretty much whatever she wants to,” Robert Kistenberg, her prosthetist, told TODAY.com. Kistenberg is the co-director and prosthetics coordinator at Georgia Institute of Technology.
In the TODAY segment, Copeland showed off what she’s already learned to do with her new hands, such as sign her name, slice strawberries and chop cucumbers. She also shook hands with Gutierrez, being careful not to grip so hard that she'd squash his hand.
Over time, Copeland is learning how to control her hands by flexing and contracting the muscles in her residual limbs. In time, she’ll learn not only how to move the hands and their fingers but also how to modulate how hard they grip.
Each time we flex or contract a muscle, there is a chemical and an electrical reaction, Kistenberg explained to TODAY.com. “That electrical signal is very, very slight,” he said. “But our electrodes are sensitive enough to pick it up through the skin.”
Copeland has to learn which muscles she needs to use to get the hands and fingers to move where and how she wants. Right now, that means a lot of trial and error.
“It's almost like a muscle memory with these things,” Copeland said. “You know, it's like you got to find the sweet spot and be able to pick things up naturally. And that'll come with time."
Eventually, Kistenberg told TODAY.com, many of the everyday movements will become second nature for Copeland and she won’t have to consciously think about them.
Copeland’s prostehtic hands are made by Touch Bionics and would normally cost $100,000 each. But because Copeland will serve as a spokesperson for the company, she’s getting them for free.
Since Copeland’s arms were amputated above the wrist, Kistenberg had to create new partial forearms that contained custom sockets that fit over her residual limbs, like gloves over hands. The forearms will contain the electrodes that read the electrical signals from Copeland’s residual limbs as well as the batteries that power everything.
Copeland is a fast learner, Kistenberg said. “There are things that she's done in two days, three days that it takes other people 6 months or a year to gain control over these devices."
How long before she’s good at maneuvering them?
“She’s very smart and very adept,” Kistenberg said. "I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next month or two she’ll be able to use them without thinking about it.”
Copeland is excited about how the new hands will change her life. "I'm really looking forward to cooking with these and to cleaning my house,” she told Gutierrez. "I’m sort of OCD, so it seems like a weird thing to want to do, but I really want to clean.”
At the same time, Copeland has been finishing off her master’s degree in psychology. After that, she plans to start a program in social work.
Copeland never forgets that she’s been given a new lease on life.
“Sometimes, honestly, I look at pictures of how I was before, and I feel almost disconnected from that person because my perspective now is so different than the point of view of that girl,” she told Gutierrez. “And so, in a way, it almost feels like I died a year ago and I was reborn as someone different."