Engineers, doctors and officials with the Department of Veterans Affairs demonstrated Thursday how new prosthetic arm technology is working for one New Hampshire veteran. The hope is that what works for this veteran will work for others.
Ron Currier, 63, describes himself as a country boy. He likes to hunt and fish, and he says on a perfect day, he'll walk into the woods, "and just spend the day out there with my dogs, maybe build a fire, cook up some kielbasa, whatever," Currier says. "We'll both have something to eat or drink and just roam the woods."
Building a fire and cooking are a bit more challenging for Currier than it is for most people. Decades ago, he lost his arms in an electrical accident. Since then he's performed basic tasks with his stumps or prosthetic arms with hooks for hands.
All that's now changing, because Currier has just become the first man ever to be fitted with two sophisticated prosthetics called LUKE arms. "These are going to give me back my independence," Currier says.
LUKE stands for "Life Under Kinetic Evolution" and they were developed by DEKA Research in Manchester, with the help of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and Mobius Bionics of Manchester, the manufacturer.
These work a couple different ways. One is a shoe sensor. Raising your heel or your toe, for example, to move the arm up or down.
The other way involves electrodes connected to Currier's muscles. Matt Albuquerque of Next Step Bionics & Prosthetics in Manchester helped fit the LUKE arms to Ron Currier's body.
"And I'll say, 'Ron, open your hand.' And he'll open his hand and use the muscles that he used to use to open the hand that's no longer there. Those electrodes pick up that signal," says Albuquerque.
The price varies based on the needs of the user. Currier's left arm alone cost $150,000, paid for by the VA.
LUKE Arm technology has been available to veterans since July of last year. But getting a LUKE arm ready for use takes a long time, says Dean Kamen of DEKA.
"When somebody loses an arm in combat, it's a pretty violent event, and the amount of residual limb they have left is a matter of what the explosion was, not a carefully planned amputation," says Kamen.
And so each LUKE arm has to be custom-built and fitted. That takes multiple trips back and forth to doctors' offices. Before this week, the only place vets could go for that was the VA in Bronx, New York.
That was too far for Currier.
"In fact, they told us he had to go to the Bronx and Ron dropped about 50 F-bombs," says Ed Kois, one of Currier's doctors.
Kois is also one of a dozen whistleblowers who came forward last year with allegations of substandard care at the Manchester VA.
His status as a whistleblower got him an audience last year with VA Secretary David Shulkin, and they still keep in touch by email. Kois says after Currier dropped those F-bombs, he sent Shulkin an email about getting Currier fitted in Manchester.
"And 18 minutes later I got a reply from Shulkin that said, 'That's a terrific idea. I'll support you whatever way I can,'" Kois says.
Currier is the first veteran to be fitted with the new technology in Manchester, but nobody I spoke to for this story wants him to be the last. Last fiscal year, the VA nationally cared for about 5,000 veterans with arm amputations. Some of those vets may be eligible for LUKE arms. But it's unclear whether a fitting in Manchester will ever happen again.
John McNemar is another of the Manchester VA whistleblowers. He's happy veterans will benefit. But he worries all this press attention for the LUKE arms takes the spotlight away from continuing problems at the Manchester VA itself. In particular--the operating room, which was closed in July due to flooding from a burst pipe.
"Personally, I think the focus should be on getting this operating room reopened and getting patients, veterans back here for their procedures that they're currently having out in the community, that we're capable of doing here."
The Manchester VA hasn't yet identified other New Hampshire vets who may be eligible. Speaking on stage Thursday, Ron Currier says once he's learned how to better use his new LUKE arms, he has big plans.
"Ice climbing at Cathedral Ledges. I really want to go climb it and repel down it. I think that'll be a lot of fun."
(Watch this video below for how the LUKE arms work.)