Kyle Small of Gore was an active 21-year-old who lost most of his right hand, including all four fingers, in an accident last year while helping a friend.
In less than a second, Small’s ability to do almost everything he loved — competitive fishing, hunting, repairing car engines, holding a loved one’s hand — had been compromised, possibly forever, due to his desire to help someone in need.
But a high-tech miracle has put him back in the game. Two months ago, Valley Orthotic Specialists Inc. in Winchester fitted Small with an electronic prosthetic — a bionic hand, if you will — that replicates his hand movements.
Small said he could be bitter about what happened to him, but he’s too busy being grateful for getting a second chance.
“It’s like when your car breaks down,” he said. “Are you going to have a fit because your car broke down or be grateful because it didn’t cause you to have an accident or wind up in a ditch?”
On May 21, 2020, six days before his 22nd birthday, Small agreed to help a friend in Prince Georges County, Maryland, replace her well pump.
“She hadn’t had any water in a week,” Small said last week during an interview in the offices of Valley Orthotic Specialists at 1726 Amherst St.
During the replacement process, the pump got jammed inside the narrow 250-foot well. Small managed to work it free, but the pump fell and the line connected to it sliced off the upper half of Small’s right hand.
“I was lucky to be alive,” he said. “Then I thought, ‘If I’m not dead, I need to take care of myself.’”
He took off his shirt and wrapped his bloody stump of a hand, then walked about half a mile until he encountered two strangers who called for an ambulance.
Small was taken to a nearby hospital, then flown to MedStar Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore. What followed was three months of painful surgeries and therapies to restore blood flow to the damaged appendage and preserve the integrity of what was left of his hand so he could be fitted with a prosthetic.
“It was a lot,” Small said.
It would have been relatively easy to cover the damaged hand with a basic, rigid prosthetic, but that wouldn’t have allowed Small to continue enjoying his passions for shooting guns, fishing in competitive tournaments and working on cars.
What he needed was an artificial hand with individually controlled fingers that would allow him to grip, pull a trigger, cast a fishing line and more.
The responsibility for creating that hand and teaching Small how to use it fell on Drs. Sarah Lane and Indi Hewavita, co-owners of Valley Orthotic Specialists.
A bionic hand is incredibly complex and requires the wearer to be specially trained to use it. It’s a long process fraught with pain and frustration, so the first thing Lane and Hewavita had to do was determine if Small was a candidate for the procedure.
It didn’t take long for them to realize that Small was ideal.
“He’s very positive, he’s very willing to work,” Lane said. “The company that manufactured his hand [Össur Prosthetics of Reykjavík, Iceland] had to come and do a lot of studies on his arm to prove that the muscles were there and functioning.”
More than a year had passed since Small lost his hand and fingers, so the first thing he had to do was retrain his brain to send commands to that missing part of his body.
“I always tell my patients they’re the engine that drives the prosthesis,” Hewavita said. “If the patient is not motivated or willing to put in the work, it’s just a device.”
Before long, Small was in Ohio giving his new prosthetic a trial run. Photos from that time reflect intense concentration on his face as he learned to control the synthetic fingers well enough to perform tasks like tying knots and removing wooden blocks from a stack without causing the other blocks to tumble.
“You’ve always got to be thinking to keep the prosthetic moving and keep your progress going,” Small said. “I’ve learned if you don’t look at it, it’s easier.”
Small was fitted with the completed artificial hand about two months ago and has surprised everyone with his progress.
“There’s a video of him in Ohio soon after he got the device and he was able to open a bag of chips,” Lane said, adding that Small has also resumed hunting and fishing.
“It’s phenomenal that he’s able to do all that,” Hewavita said.
As Small’s damaged hand continues to heal and his muscles become stronger, the sensitivity of the sensors in the prosthetic will gradually be dialed back. Currently, the batteries in the device can run for 10 to 12 hours before being drained. When the sensors don’t have to work so hard to detect electrical impulses, the batteries should last longer and Small should be able to use the prosthetic for longer periods.
The bionic hand itself should last a lifetime.
“Unless there’s a dramatic change in the anatomy of the [damaged] hand, we wouldn’t necessarily need to change the socket his residual limb fits into,” Hawavita said.
Small said he’s grateful for his new hand and the new lease on life it brings, and he’s looking forward to a bright future of pursuing his passions while helping the people he loves.
“I’ve proceeded as if nothing happened, basically,” he said. “I make the best out of everything.”