New Hampshire ingenuity brings a bold new technology to amputees, veterans

  • Amputee Chuck Hildreth looks up at the powered-shoulder prosthesis as he moves it around in Manchester on Thursday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • LEFT: Chuck Hildreth (left) shakes hands with DEKA CEO Dean Kamen on Thursday. GEOFF FORESTER photosMonitor staff

  • Ron Currier shakes hands with DEKA CEO Dean Kamen before the Next Step Bionics and Prosthetics demonstration in Manchester on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • ABOVE: Ron Currier, a retired chief of prosthetics at Manchester Veterans Affairs and a double amputee, demonstrates two LUKE arms before the Next Step Bionics and Prosthetics demonstration in Manchester on Thursday.

  • Chuck Currier shakes DEKA CEO Dean Kamens hand before the Next Step Bionics and Prosthetics LUKE demonstration in Manchester on Feb. 22, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 2/22/2018 10:43:23 PM

Ron Currier thought for a few seconds, then extended his right arm and shook hands.

This simple act, performed several times Thursday at a Manchester restaurant, reminded those at a press conference not to take anything for granted.

Currier knows this better than most. He was a high-voltage lineman in the Air Force 43 years ago when he grabbed a wire juiced with 13,000 volts and burned both his arms, leaving him as a bilateral, below-the-elbow amputee.

But after years of antiquated, Civil War-era technology that included plastic and hooks for arms, Currier stood on a stage to unveil a stunning example of science fiction evolving into science fact.

Backed by a heavy dose of New Hampshire ingenuity and technology, the prosthetic worn by Currier allowed the Strafford resident to transfer his brain impulses to electrodes implanted on his new forearm, then to the muscles that used to control movement in his hand.

No cables, no wires, no tricks, the New Hampshire inventors told us. Currier thought what he wanted to do, and his arm, with a three-second delay at most, gladly obliged, allowing him to greet guests with a firm handshake.

“It’s been 43 years since I lost them, but as far as my mind is concerned, my hands are still there,” Currier told me shortly before the official presentation. “I’m thinking that I am moving my hand, which causes the muscles in my arm to do it. I’ve had a ball. I hunt and fish and scuba dive.”

Yes, it sounds impossible, like something out of an android movie, but what was once thought to be out of this world is now part of it.

The project began with research and development 11 years ago, and is centered around something called the LUKE arm, named after the famous character from Star Wars. That forms the basis for this technology, and it was invented by Dean Kamen, the Bedford engineer who invented the Segway scooter.

Next, Matt Albuquerque, founder of Next Step Bionics and Prosthetics in Manchester, worked with Kamen and developed the electronics and signal-sending pattern recognition software so brain impulses could do their job.

Further, $40 million in funding came from the Department of Defense, with an eye toward giving veterans the care they deserved.

And then there was Dr. Ed Kois, who made headlines last year as a whistleblower, exposing substandard conditions and treatment at the Manchester VA Medical Center, where he works.

Kois was all ears when Albuquerque and Currier went to see him, hoping to promote the new technology in Manchester.

Now, the technology is ready for commercialization, and we were told via press release that this was a day of firsts.

The first “calibrated sensors capable of decoding natural muscle signals with the LUKE arm.” The first “private fitting of a LUKE arm featuring a fully integrated powered shoulder, elbow, wrist and hand.”

And the first “bilateral amputee fitted with two LUKE arms.”

That last nugget means that Currier also wore a prosthetic left arm that was controlled by sensors – called inertial measurement units – attached to his shoes. To move that arm, he moved his feet. He rolled on his toe to close his left hand.

That technology is older, introduced 10 years ago. Chuck Hildreth of Gilford wore it for his right arm, tapping his foot to shake hands or gently pick up a grape.

Hildreth also lost both arms in a high-voltage accident in 1981 at age 18. He drank heavily after that and says he was lost, but he became a world champion disabled skier and is now president of Lakes Region Disabled Sports.

These marvels of technology are expensive, costing $150,000 to $200,000. They are not covered by private insurance, but will be available to veterans, Albuquerque said.

As part of the project, Currier got his prosthetics for free. His fiancee, Cordelia Scahill, was at the press conference and said Currier is “more self-confident now.”

Currier is still adjusting to his prosthetics. When asked when they will marry, Scahill said, “When he is able to put the ring on my finger. I’m willing to bet that will be by the fall.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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