Wichita amputee to be among nation's first to receive biointegrated arm | Ascension

Wichita amputee to be among nation's first to receive biointegrated arm

Sondra Stieber, a retired Haysville science teacher, flew to New York today to be fitted and trained on a bionic arm that she will control with her mind.

Sondra will be among the nation’s first patients fit to a prosthesis that is directly connected to the bone in her arm and controlled by nerve signals sent from her remaining muscles. Designed by prosthetists at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, it will capture her desired movements and convert them into functional prosthetic arm motions. This will allow her to use the prosthesis by simply moving her arm as she naturally would have prior to her amputation.

For Sondra, whose forearm was amputated in June 2018 after microscopic blood clots caused by a broken collarbone six months earlier cut off circulation to her left arm, the trip will mark the end of a long journey -- and the start of an amazing new one despite a complicated medical history and a number of setbacks along the way.

"I consider myself lucky," says Sondra, who will be joined on the weeklong trip by her husband, Mark, two close friends and Leanne Bath, one of three Ascension Via Christi Rehabilitation therapists who have worked with her for the past three years to build her strength and prepare her for this moment. "I am surrounded by brilliant, creative people who make things happen."

Those people include Bath, an occupational therapy assistant, her manager, occupational therapist Mike Reynolds, physical therapist Trina Shockey and microsurgeon Joshua Linnell MD, an Ascension Medical Group Via Christi hand specialist, who have all played a key role in getting her to this medical history-making moment, she says.

"I would not have known about this option if it wasn't for Dr. Linnell or even been a candidate if it wasn't for Mike, Trina and Leanne," says Sondra. "They really hung in there with me through a lot of ups and downs."

Misfortune and miracles

Sondra says she initially thought the coldness in her left hand following her fall was caused by her lupus or the series of strokes she had suffered over the past 10 years. Instead, it was the oxygen-deprived tissue in her dominant hand dying, making amputation the only option.

The trauma surgeon who performed the procedure was able to save a couple inches of Sondra's arm below the elbow and discussed several options with her. Those included a bone lengthening procedure, for which it was later determined that she wasn't a candidate, and being fitted with a traditional prosthesis with a molded cup mounted on her stump, which she did.

She then began working with the therapists to rebuild her strength and balance, which was thrown off by neurological damage from her previous strokes, the loss of her lower arm and a stumble that caused her to shatter her right elbow, leaving her with both arms out of commission.

That led to her retirement in December 2019. "But I kept doing therapy because there are so many things I wanted to be able to do as I was looking forward to a very active retirement."

In the meantime, Dr. Linnell, who was providing Sondra's post-operative care, turned to the internet for further options. That's where he learned about a relatively new procedure called osseointegration, which involves inserting the prosthesis directly into the bone, making it a permanent part of the body.

He contacted S. Robert Rozbruch, MD, director of the Hospital for Special Surgery Limb Salvage and Amputation Reconstruction Center in New York, who had been successfully using the osseointegration limb replacement procedure for several years, but mostly on leg amputees, to see if Sondra might be a candidate.

By the time her initial prosthesis arrived, Sondra had already traveled to New York and been told that she would be a candidate, provided that she could build enough strength in her weak left arm to support the weight of the three-plus-pound prosthetic hand.

Trina Shockey, Mike Reynolds, and Leanne Bath, therapists at Ascension Via Christi, pictured with Sondra Stieber, recipient of a biointegrated arm.

Sondra and her team of Ascension Via Christi therapists went to work, with Reynolds, who is a certified hand specialist, creating devices in his basement to serve as stand-ins for her new arm during her twice a week therapy sessions with Shockey and Bath.

"The doctors in New York have been amazed at what they have come up with to help me get prepared," says Sondra. “They have even asked to keep one of the devices once I have my new arm.”

In December 2019, she returned to New York where Dr. Rozbruch inserted a titanium implant in her bone to which, once healed and biologically bonded, her high-tech prosthetic arm would be attached.

"We left thinking it would happen as early as March," says Sondra. But then came an unexpected setback: Her insurance company, which had covered the placement of the rod, denied coverage for the new arm. Despite provider write-offs, fund-raising efforts and funds from the Stiebers' own savings, they were still approximately $50,000 short of what was needed for the prosthesis.

"Coming up with that amount of money just wasn’t possible after all the other expenses," says Sondra.

Hope on the horizon

On Nov. 21, her 56th birthday, Sondra received an unexpected gift: A pair of donors, who prefer to remain anonymous, told her that they would contribute the remaining amount. So while the COVID-19 pandemic added a few more months to her wait, she's scheduled to finally receive her new arm on March 18.

During their weeklong stay in New York, Bath will train with HSS' occupational therapists and prosthetics team on the newest generation of the myoelectric prosthesis, created through a collaboration of seven different companies.

Husband Mark, a calibration specialist for a local industrial equipment supplier, will be trained on how to adjust the arm's pattern-recognition software as needed.

And her friends will be there to document medical history in the making with Sondra in the center of it all.

"This type of technology was written about in a medical journal as a possibility in 2019," says Sondra, who will be returning to Wichita on Wednesday, March 24, waving a new hand that she can open and close simply by thinking about it. "Now here we are in early 2021 and I am about to benefit from it."

She's excited about working with Shockey and Bath to get adjusted to her new arm as well as what having the nation's only trained therapy team outside of New York will mean to Wichita.

“Ascension Via Christi will be a national hub of therapy expertise," she says.