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Iraq Amputees Receive Prosthetic Hands - 2004-05-21

Of the Iraqi men whose right hands were cut off in Abu Ghraib prison under the rule of Saddam Hussein in 1995, seven are now nearing the end of nearly two months of therapy in Houston, where they received new prosthetic hands. The hands not only look real, but the hi-tech prosthetics will allow them to regain much of the normal life they lost when they were maimed.

As his therapist coaches him, Nazar concentrates on the muscles in his forearm, tightening one side and then the other to send electrical pulses to the point where his arm abruptly ends. A mechanical arm placed over his residual limb responds to his muscle signals and the hand, covered with a natural-looking flesh-colored rubber, opens and closes.

Shawn Swanson, the clinical specialist for Otto Bock Health Care, the company that made the devices, explains their function.

?There are electrodes inside the socket that sit on the surface of the skin and pick up on that electrical activity from the muscles,? he said. ?When you signal to one muscle group it will make the hand do one thing, say open. When you send it to the opposite muscle group, it will do the opposite, it will close. When they learn how to isolate and make those muscles separate, where one functions at a time and they do not both function at the same time, they are able to consistently and easily open and close the hand.?

Shawn Swanson added that tiny motors and computerized mechanisms in the hands make them function almost like real hands.

?It has what we call proportional control, so the harder they contract the muscles, the quicker the hand operates,? he explained. ?The more mild or slow the contraction, the slower the hand operates and this allows them not to crush an object. It also has something in the thumb, it is a sensor. What happens is if something is slipping out of the hand or getting heavier, the hand does the thinking for the individual. It will tighten down the grasp so that the object does not slip. They do not have to fire off another contraction to tighten the grasp of the hand, it does it for them.?

The seven Iraqi men who came to Houston in early April were part of a group of nine arrested for possession of U.S. dollars during the rule of Saddam Hussein. The dictator wanted to control the trade in foreign currency, so he had these men taken to prison as an example. There, surgeons removed their right hands in crude operations that were videotaped for Saddam Hussein to view later.

One of the men, Bassim al Fadly, said that they violated no law other than the capricious law of Saddam Hussein.

?Saddam law was different than any other law,? he said. ?It was not really law like in another country.?

In addition to the pain and loss of their hands, the men felt shamed since this kind of punishment, under Islamic law, is for thieves. They say they were not thieves, only businessmen who needed dollars to pay for imported goods.

For ten years, these men lived without their right hands, but still felt pain in their forearms because of the crude nature of the surgery. Then, last year, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a U.S. television producer named Don North tracked down seven of the victims and arranged to have them taken to Houston. Their transportation was provided free by Houston-based Continental airlines. The surgery to repair damage done to nerve endings was done by a Houston doctor who specializes in re-constructive surgery. The state-of-the-art bionic hands, which each cost more than $30,000, were donated by the Germany-based Otto Bock company.

For post-operative therapy the men came to The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research at the Texas Medical Center. Here, a team led by Supervisor of Occupational Therapy Myra Vasquez spent weeks helping them to adjust to their new hands and learn to feel comfortable in a strange country. She says they were reserved at first, but that they have now formed friendships with the staff.

?We have gotten to know them very well and they kid around with us [make jokes] and it has been very important for them to see Americans,? she said. ?It was very interesting, Bassim made a comment. He said, ?You all are so kind and so nice. That is not what we hear over there.? So it was nice to have them see a different perspective.?

The men are now wearing their prosthetic arms only three hours a day for practice and therapy sessions. Myra Vasquez says that after ten years of living without a right hand, the forearm muscles and brains must learn to work together again.

Slowly but surely these guys will be able to tolerate their prosthetic arms all day long and do the things they were used to doing. Here, we have done simple things like writing, buttoning, zipping, those kinds of things. The important thing is that they take the foundation back with them.

The seven Iraqis will travel with their new hands to Washington next week for a short visit and then on home to Iraq. They will also take with them the experience they had living here in Houston and the friendships they developed with their doctors, therapists and other Americans they met during their stay.