Thursday, January 14, 2010

Injured Instructor Resumes Career with Robotic Hand

By Charmain Z. Brackett
Military Health System

Staff Sgt. Luis Elias considers the last six months as just a bump along life’s road.

“Adapt and overcome is the name of the game. It’s just something that happened,” said Elias, a Fort Benning, Ga., drill sergeant, who lost his right hand in a training accident on June 30, 2009.

A training device exploded in his right hand, leaving only his thumb. After a July 7 surgery at the Dwight David Eisenhower Army Medical Center here to amputate his arm two inches above his wrist, Elias spent five months at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center’s active-duty rehabilitation unit in Augustus, Ga. He was released on Dec. 18 and returned to Fort Benning, Ga., to report to work on Monday, Jan. 4.

Some of the new recruits may not even realize their drill sergeant is an amputee. Rather than a hook, Elias has been outfitted with an i-LIMB, a robotic prosthetic hand which can perform many of the same functions as his natural hand.

He can tie a bow or his shoelaces. He can play table tennis, shake someone’s hand or pick up a paper cup and drink out of it without crushing it or spilling all the contents.

“He can perform independently with a hook, but cosmetically, this is more appealing,” said his occupational therapist, Lisa Dowling, “He uses his muscles in a more sophisticated way. He can write with it.”

Elias’ four year-old son, Noah, likes his dad’s new hand.

“He thinks I’m a Transformer,” said Elias.

Elias has been in the Army for six years. He joined after graduating from high school. Growing up in the projects of Miami, Fla., surrounded by gangs and drugs, he knew he had to get out of that environment for a chance at a better life. A friend of the family had been in the Army and talked to him about military life.

Elias said a combination of factors have helped him get through this the past few months.

“I have a type A attitude,” he said. “I’m mentally tough plus going through two deployments in Iraq helped.”

Also, he has a strong faith in God.

“He’s the reason. He keeps me straight,” he said.

He calls his wife, Claudia, his backbone. The two meet while in Advance Individual Training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. Days after the accident, she uprooted the family and spent five months at the Dwight David Eisenhower Army Medical Center Fisher House to be with her husband as he recovered.

He said he was also inspired by a Vietnam veteran, retired Col. John Winkler.

“He lost his right hand in Vietnam and stayed in another 12-13 years,” he said. “He was an inspiration. He motivated me. He took me fishing and shooting. He’s a great guy.”

He also credits the VA hospital staff for their help.

Elias now plans to be an inspiration to others.

“I’m going to be doing push-ups and sit-ups. I want to show them they are the only limit they have,” he said.

Elias plans to finish out his time as a drill sergeant and reclassify as a career counselor. He intends to retire from the Army in about 14 years.

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