Handing kids a future
May 23, 2017
Artificial limbs are increasingly making a big difference to the quality of life for people who need them.
The technology, called myoelectric prosthesis, is already enhancing the lives of its users, including young children who have never known what it's like to grab life with both hands.
One girl, just 21 months old, came to a hospital in Kobe City.
She had prepared to use a prosthetic hand for about 2 months and was trying the device for the first time.
"It was exciting to see her hand open," says her mother. "I was relieved that she didn't reject it."
Muscles send subtle electrical signals when the person wants to move them. That allows the mechanical fingers to open or close according to the signals.
After training, users can move their hands the way they want.
In Japan, there are only 3 facilities -- including this hospital -- that can train infants and children.
Kohei Nakamura comes from Kyoto Prefecture.
He began training with his prosthesis when he was 3 years old. He can now hold things and is learning to jump rope.
Kohei says he's happy with his new hand, while his mother says she can see his ability to use it properly improve little by little.
Kohei was born without his right forearm.
"After he was born I was told that he lacked his lower right arm," says his mother. "I cried when I was alone with him and apologized to him again and again."
Often heard at home are the words "right hand," when Kohei wears his prosthesis.
His mother explains their system for encouraging him:
"Kohei often asks me to do things saying, 'I can't do this.' But I tell him to put on the prosthesis and do it himself."
The device changed his life. He couldn't hold dishes or utensils before. But now he can use them perfectly.
He often plays with interlocking plastic blocks or clay, which require the use of both hands.
At his nursery school, the principal noticed that Kohei was fitting in well with all the other kids.
"We don't have to treat him differently," she says. "His classmates understand that he just uses a prosthetic hand, so we had nothing to worry about."
His mother expects that the prosthetic hand will give him more options for his future.
"I don't want him to think 'I can't do this without a right hand'," she says. "I want him to feel that he can do anything."
Kohei started elementary school this spring.
He will have handicraft classes and play instruments at school. He'll be able to enjoy a world of unlimited possibilities with his new hand.
Kaori Matsuda from NHK's Kobe bureau covered Kohei's story and brought an actual myoelectric prosthesis to the studio to show Newsroom Tokyo's anchors Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu.
Beppu: I see it is moving smoothly but I'm a little surprised by how heavy it is.
Matsuda: Yes, that's true. That’s why doctors from Hyogo Prefecture, where Kobe City lies, are developing a new version.
They want to improve its weight, range of movement, and price. They've made it lighter by using plastic instead of metal for the "bones."
They also added more joints to help the fingers move more smoothly and grasp objects more gently.
They're hoping to make it more affordable, too. Because now, each of the hands is about 13 thousand dollars. People hope they will become more common in Japan.
Shibuya: According to the video, there also seems to be a challenge of training for the users.
Matsuda: Yes, learning to use them requires intensive training, with medical specialists and occupational therapists. So far there are very few training facilities for children in Japan.
With the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games coming up in three years, advanced prostheses are drawing interest in Japan. But in the meantime, improving training measures and facilities is also important.