When Sondra Stieber’s arm was amputated three years ago, the former science teacher at Haysville Middle School was dismayed at the lack of prosthetic options for upper limb amputees.
“They gave me a hook,” said the mother of eight and stepmother of two, 56 years old. “It’s really barbaric. It straps onto your shoulders, you have to move it with the solar plexus on your other arm, it’s hot, it rubs sores on your body, and the only benefit you get is a hook that opens and closes with a lot of work, so 90 percent of amputees don’t use them.
Meanwhile, Julie Dombo, a quadruple amputee from Derby, a teacher and counselor at Haysville Middle School who had retired a year before Stieber began teaching, was struggling to get insurance companies to pay. myoelectric and microprocessor-based prostheses, i.e. robotic hands.
A school worker who had worked with the two women visited Stieber in the hospital after his amputation in 2018 and said: “I have someone you need to meet.
“From the first time I met Julie, she felt like a friend,” Stieber said. “She’s so amazing, gives so much of her time, such a great mentor and role model. I think Julie and I both share a very positive outlook so this has been very helpful.
Fast forward to today.
Stieber is now a cyborg, having returned from New York to Wichita recently with an osteo-integrated myoelectric hand and equipped with pattern recognition software.
“It’s a big bite of techno-talk out there,” she laughed, “but that’s what makes me a cyborg.”
Osseointegration involves hollowing out the bone of the arm or leg and implanting a metal rod. The bone grows in the porous surface of the metal and becomes a permanent part of the body, and the prosthesis can attach to the implant. Stieber is only the second person in the United States to have the procedure on his arm.
A sleeve with sensors inside is worn around the upper arm and picks up nerve signals as they travel from the brain down the arm to the microprocessor in the fully functional hand with the opposable thumb – allowing Stieber to do so. move with his mind.
Dombo, 66, who was gunned down during an attempted theft from the Derby AT&T store in 2015, was responsible for obtaining Blue Cross / Blue Shield of Kansas to cover myoelectric and microprocessor prostheses for major fully insured group health insurance plans.
“Sondra’s hands are state of the art,” Dombo said. “They are where the future of prosthetics is going. This is not new ; it’s something amputees need and deserve.
Dombo said that an Amputee Coalition bill that has been hanging around in the US Senate since “probably 2014” reads in part:
“Amputees deserve anything that brings them back to the quality of life they can find – if they want to work, if they want to exercise, if they want to cook, whatever they want to do, they deserve a chance to come back. at this level of independence.
In the absence of federal action, the Amputee Coalition of America visited the states and provided training to amputees on how to get state bills passed. Dombo and her husband, John, attended in 2019, and she has set a goal of getting the bill passed in Kansas.
With the help of a lawyer / lobbyist who donated his time and unwavering determination, Dombo was able to get Blue Cross / Blue Shield to change its policy to cover myoelectric and microprocessor-funded prostheses funded by the group from the first of this year.
“You have to be part of the group plan, and the Haysville school district was,” Dombo said, “and that was the one I was working on so I could pay Sondra’s fees. [osseointegration] procedure.”
The insurance covered the osseointegration procedure for Stieber, but “when it came to covering the hand, I didn’t meet the criteria,” Stieber said. Anonymous donors paid the last $ 50,000 for the arm, but she racked up around $ 200,000 in medical bills.
Stieber will be the first to say it’s really worth it.
“My doctors are excited about my progress – they’ve even carted off,” she said. “They told me if I could hit a certain milestone by the end of the week, they would do cartwheels. I reached this milestone on the first day of therapy, so the doctor moved the table and let me film him cartwheeling.
“Knowing what the hand can do, I sometimes feel frustrated that I can’t learn faster, as it’s going to take months of therapy, but when it comes to progression, I get through the stages very quickly. “
Dombo turned 65 and signed up for Medicare in 2019 and Medicare won’t pay for microelectronics, “but with a lobbyist, you could make them keep paying to get yours fixed,” she said. “We are working to get Medicare to pay for newbies nationwide. If Medicare would, I think all insurance companies will. “
“I’m fighting for other people and that’s how I got Blue Cross / Blue Shield to change their policy, and then Aetna followed, and we hope United Health will too.”
During her struggles to get insurance companies to pay for myoelectric hands, a Koch Oil vice president and his wife who heard his story offered her the myoelectric hands that she was using in therapy at Peeples Prosthetics which cost $ 130,000 each.
“I was just shocked,” she said. “They went up the stairs [of our home] carrying boxes and I said, ‘these are my hands, what are you doing with my hands?’ They couldn’t even cancel me out as a tax deduction – I’m not a 501c3, ”she said. “So I have my hands and I use them all the time.”
Stieber was recently accepted as an advocate for the Amputee Coalition of America and was “offered a lot of speaking engagements.”
“I’m very interested in adult education and I think training teachers and prosthetists and letting doctors know that there is this new technology is important work,” she said.
“Between Julie’s advocacy for insurance approval and people like me letting people know that there are better devices, this is just going to revolutionize prosthetics for upper limb amputees. It will make all the difference in the world.