Starting when she was just 3, Lizbeth Uzcategui has worn prosthetics that have helped her adjust to living with her right arm missing below the elbow and several fingers gone from her left hand, a condition that she was born with.
But now, at 43, she has been fitted with one of the most advanced prosthetics in the world. And that has changed her entire perspective, vastly increasing her range of motion, the tasks she can perform — and the kind of life she can look forward to.
“I was functional before, but I was limited,” she said Tuesday. Her most recent prosthetic, which could only make a motion to open or close the fingers, like a claw, meant she often had to find a way to use her body to work around its rudimentary motions.
Inside the Hanger Clinic in Fort Lauderdale, serving patients with prosthetics and orthotics, Uzcategui demonstrated the comparative ease of her new prosthetic, a slim black forearm and hand with rubber fingers that allows her full mobility of her entire hand.
Her palm opened, then closed, forming a thumbs-up sign.
“This is the first time in my life that I’ve had a fully functional hand,” she said, a grin spreading across her face as she watched the fingers shift into position.
The device, called the i-limb, works through electrode sensors inside of the prosthetic. The sensors fit over the end of Uzcategui’s arm and respond to her muscle contractions. Over time, the process becomes more seamless as the body adjusts, said Matt Klein, a licensed prosthetist orthotist and a senior manager at the clinic.
Klein described the prosthetic as the “smallest, lightest and fastest” model on the market. Uzcategui is the first person in the country to be fitted with it, he said.
While larger models were available, it wasn’t available in a size that could fit Uzcategui’s petite frame until now.
After wearing the prosthetic for four days, Uzcategui has found herself watching the different ways that people hold things and wondering how she can do that, too. Her dark eyes widen as she talks about the possibilities ahead.
“In a way I feel like a little girl,” she said. “Like a baby that is discovering how to hold things.”
While previously Uzcategui could drive or hold a purse in just one position, for example, now she can grip the steering wheel at different points. She also has control over the individual fingers of her prosthetic to make pointing or beckoning motions — both which had evaded her before.
“One of the things that is very important for me is the fact that I can do handshakes,” she said. “Before it was kind of awkward for me.”
Originally from Venezuela, Uzcategui was born missing part of her right arm and several fingers on her left hand due to complications from Amniotic Band Syndrome, more commonly known as ABS. This happens when fibrous bands become wrapped around the fetus, restricting blood flow, which can lead to amputations.
Since childhood, Uzcategui has worn different types of prosthetics, and even has a special model that allows her to practice yoga.
As the technology has advanced, it’s created major changes in the functionality of prosthetics, Klein said. Just as smaller microprocessors have led to smaller cell phones and computers, the smaller size has meant that a prosthetic can hold a different microprocessor for each finger, allowing each to respond individually. Many electronic prosthetics still have just one microprocessor so that it can only make only one, open-and-closed motion.
Uzcategui’s new i-limb prosthetic also is equipped with Bluetooth technology and allows her to program the prosthetic to form different positions with 24 different types of grips, all by using an app on her iPhone. But as the most advanced device on the market, the price tag is steep: about $90,000 with insurance coverage, Klein said.
Uzcategui said that while she’s still getting used to the new prosthetic, she can wear it easily for the entire day. “It fits right for me. It’s just very comfortable,” she said. It’s like “when you have a new pair of shoes that you’re trying to get used to.”
When she goes to bed, the prosthetic pops off with some easing at her elbow and can be charged in a wall outlet overnight.
A few days into using the i-limb, Uzcategui looks forward to finding ways to do everyday things more naturally, she said. “I’ve been waiting for this for such a long time and it’s finally here.”