Eagle County woman getting new hands for a new life
September 20, 2010
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – Kendra Creek may send her first text Tuesday.
It’ll be kind of slow, like texting with your parents, but miracles take time.
Earlier this summer, Creek lost both hands and both feet to bacterial meningitis. So far, the 22-year-old has lived through seven surgeries, six skin grafts and kidney failure. She says she prefers to focus on that first part: She’s lived through it all.
She gets fitted for new hands Tuesday, and her message to the valley goes like this:
“I’m actually wonderful,” she said during a quick phone call. “It’s life and you have to get through it. You just bust your butt and make the right choices.”
We caught up to Kendra and her parents as they were stopped at a drive-thru window for a soft drink. She needed something to wash down her massive dose of pain medication.
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When bacterial meningitis attacks, the blood rushes to the vital organs in a fight or flight response to keep them alive. That means blood rushes away from arms and legs. Kendra’s extremities turned black. They were dying, and so was she.
While she was in a medically induced coma for three weeks, Kendra’s kidneys failed and she had to go into dialysis. Doctors could not revive her extremities, and 28 days later started amputating.
Every single day is planned for Kendra. Nothing that’s planned is easy, but it’s worth it, she says.
But before we can tell you that story, we have to tell you this story.
Kendra was with relatives in Indiana and went to work that May 1 morning feeling like she’d been smacked by a Peterbilt packing flu germs – splitting headache, aching all over, upset stomach. She asked her boss if she could go home.
“He said no because he thought I had a hangover,” Kendra said.
He told her if she left, she had to go to a doctor and bring back a medical excuse. If she didn’t, she need not bother coming back.
She made it as far as the emergency room door before she started having trouble putting one foot in front of the other. The chair on which she collapsed was almost her final resting place.
Less than five minutes later, doctors were examining her. Minutes after that, they were telling family members that she might not live 24 hours.
“I was in the emergency room and I started turning purple,” she said. “I kept asking a bunch of people around me what was happening, but no one would answer me.”
The last thing she remembers is a man named Matt repeatedly telling her to fight harder, her last memory before she was unconscious for three weeks.
“I had to fight for my parents, too,” she said. “If something happened to me and I didn’t make it, my mom and dad might give up on themselves.”
Her dad, Michael, has multiple sclerosis. It cost him his job with the local UPS store. Her brother, Joseph, was killed instantly three years ago when an ambulance hit him as he was walking along Highway 6 in Eagle County.
Michael says Kendra is making progress, has a great attitude, she’s still in rehab and she’s still on kidney dialysis.
“Everything’s healing nicely and there’s still some healing to do,” Michael said. “Things are getting better for her.”
Kendra’s new “i-Limb” hands will do most of the things hands are supposed to do. All her fingers move independently and she can stop some fingers and make others work, said Tom Whitehurst, a certified prostheticist and orthoticist with Riverside Orthotics and Prosthetics in Evansville, Indiana. He’s working with Kendra.
She can use her fingers to declare her team No. 1. She can flash you a peace sign, tell you to hang loose, tell you she loves you and if you cut her off in traffic she can shoot you a California Howdy – if you know what we mean and we think you do.
They act like real hands; they look like real hands. They’re designed to match the users’ skin tone and body type.
On basic prosthetic hands, only the middle finger, ring and index finger move.
“It’s brand new technology. There are only about 100 hands in use out there right now,” Whitehurst said.
Every finger has an individual motor, and each finger is independent and interchangeable.
“If she breaks her index finger, I could move her ring finger over immediately, then replace the ring finger later,” Whitehurst said.
With old school prosthetics, if you wrap your hand around a Dixie cup it would crush it. Kendra’s hands will hold it gently, Whitehurst said. She’ll be able to extend her pinky when she drinks tea. Whether any of us ever remember to do that is an entirely different matter.
The electrodes in Kendra’s bionic hands will be connected to the extensor muscle on the back of her wrists. When you contract or relax these muscles, your fingers move.
“Even though her hand is gone, her brain is still working those nerves. They’re just cut shorter, in her case,” Whitehurst said.
They’ll have her texting in the extremely near future, and hopefully walking by Thanksgiving, Whitehurst said.
It all sounds like what it is – a miracle. These hands are light years ahead of what was available just a short time ago, and improvements are constant. This breakthrough will beget others, Whitehurst said.
“There is always improvement in this field,” Whitehurst said. “With this breakthrough other companies are already trying to do more. She’ll have these three years or so, then we’ll refit her with the next generation of upgrades.”
Kendra’s new hands normally cost $80,000 each. The Creeks will get them at cost, about $35,000, Whitehurst said. The company that makes the hands, Touch Bionics in Columbus, Ohio, got involved as part of its charitable work.
“They made it possible for us to help this girl,” Whitehurst said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.