Amanda Kitts' Story
The Bionic Mom
As the owner of three day care centers in Knoxville, Tennessee, 40-year-old Amanda Kitts loves nothing more than hugging the children she cares for. “These kids are my life,” she said. “They fill my heart with love.”
In April 2006, hugging those children or her 9-year-old son, Casey, became impossible when Kitts’ left arm was amputated above the elbow after her small Mercedes sports car was run over by a monster truck. She was devastated and afraid of how she would return to her role in the day care centers.
“It killed me thinking I may never be able to hug Casey and the children again,” she said.
Kitts’ husband desperately searched the Internet for information about an artificial limb that would allow Amanda to perform functions that once brought her joy, such as cooking with the children, blowing bubbles, caring for them and, most of all, embracing them.
When he came across research being performed at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) on neuro-controlled prosthetic arms that could be controlled by a user’s own nerve signals allowing a person to simply think about moving the arm to operate it, he knew it might just be the answer.
Taking a Chance
Kitts and her husband jumped on a plane to Chicago and ended up in the office of Todd Kuiken, M.D., Ph.D. , director of RIC's Neural Engineering Center for Bionic Medicine.
Dr. Kuiken and his team are conducting groundbreaking research called “targeted reinnervation,” which involves a complex surgical process of reconnecting existing nerves from an amputee’s residual limb to new muscle and skin in an unused area, such as the chest. Once the transplanted nerves grow into the pectoral muscles and skin, patients are fit with a customized myoelectric arm. The prosthetic arm includes electrodes that sit on the surface of the newly implanted nerve sites and act as antennas. When a patient wants to move his or her arm, nerve signals are picked up by these electrodes and communicate to the myoelectric arm, telling it to move.
Dr. Kuiken thought Kitts was a good candidate to test his “bionic arm,” but she would have to wait several months to begin the process. In the meantime, she was fitted with a basic myoelectric prosthesis that required many separate muscle contractions in order to move different parts of the device. “It was not very usable,” says Kitts.
In the following months, as she traveled back and forth between Chicago and Knoxville, Kitts continued to battle feelings of depression. Kitts remained optimistic through brief moments of joy, such as when she visited one of her day care centers without her prosthesis and a child looked at where her arm had been and cheerily said, “Your boo-boo is going to be OK.”
It was her team of RIC therapists, Kitts says, who made the biggest difference in helping her achieve happiness again. The team constantly boosted her morale by telling her that she had important things to accomplish in life and had many people, big and small, who rely on her. “You can do anything you want and you can help others,” they encouraged.
“They lifted me up and kept me alive,” says Kitts. “They showed me I had a purpose in life and helped me discover many abilities. If it hadn’t been for them I don’t think I would have come out of the bottom I was in.”
In October 2006, Kitts underwent surgery to begin the process of fitting her for her new arm. Surgeons split the muscles of her biceps and triceps in half and separated them with fatty tissue allowing the nerves to be transplanted into the four different muscles.
Kitts was now left to wait for the nerves in her four new muscles to grow and develop until she could feel them twitch in response to thoughts. Kitts was fitted with her RIC “bionic arm” in April 2007.
“It was wonderful,” she says. “It made me feel more human because I could work it almost like a regular arm. I just had to think and it responded. My new arm made me feel like I could do anything again.”
Just like a regular arm, it was perfect for hugging. The first time she hugged Casey with her new arm, she fought back tears as she pulled him tight to her body. When she returned to her day care centers, the kids no longer talked about her boo-boo, but became fascinated by what they called her “robot arm.” Kitts soon discovered that the arm worked just as well when she gave hugs to children smaller than Casey. “I can even change diapers now,” she says with a laugh.
Kitts plays a valuable role in assisting Dr. Kuiken and his team in ongoing research that has helped RIC offer this same procedure to other patients with upper arm amputations.
Through advanced research discoveries such as this, RIC is able to provide the most cutting-edge clinical care to its patients.
Kitts is now involved in testing a more advanced “bionic arm” with RIC and other collaborators. The project was developed with funding from the U.S. government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
“Amanda has been wonderfully helpful as we work to develop better artificial arms,” says Dr. Kuiken. “She has been far more than a patient or a research subject; she has been an important member of our team and her insight about our new devices has been invaluable. She has helped us take leaps in our science, rather than little steps.”
While Kitts is immensely proud of her scientific contribution to develop more useful artificial limbs, she is most proud and happy to go back to contributing to the lives of the kids in her day care centers. She can hold a mixing bowl while stirring cookie dough; she can help tie a child’s shoe with ease; she can quickly pull up pants that are slipping down; she can effortlessly hold a bottle of bubbles in one hand and blow bubbles with the other; she can give a hug any time she feels like it.
For Kitts, these are the greatest gifts of all.