Army veteran ready for amputation, bionic arm
By ROBERT RHODEN | NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune | Associated Press | Published: September 9, 2017
MANDEVILLE, La. — Perry Pezzarossi left for a trip to Salt Lake City where he will get his right arm cut off below the elbow.
In a way, he's looking forward to it.
The Army veteran is nervous but hopes the amputation will pave the way for him to join the few in the U.S. to be outfitted with a recently approved, state-of-the-art bionic hand and wrist called the LUKE, developed under the U.S. Department of Defense for injured servicemembers.
"Unless they kill me, I have nothing to lose," said Pezzarossi, 47, whose arm has been rendered useless because of injuries and disease. "It's in the way. It doesn't work. It's never going to work."
If things go as planned, in a year or so he will be outfitted with the LUKE, which stands for Life Under Kinetic Evolution and is also a nod to the limb movie hero Luke Skywalker was equipped with in "Star Wars: Episode V The Empire Strikes Back."
Most of those who have received the LUKE thus far control the hand via sensors worn on the feet. But Pezzarossi will be a special case.
He is participating in a clinical trial in which University of Utah doctors will implant dozens of electrodes into what remains of his forearm to record signals from the muscles and control a prosthetic hand. The clinical trial also involves the use of sensors in the prosthetic's fingers that can tell the user how hard they are gripping an object.
"The novelty is we're bringing humans and machines closer together in a way that benefits the human," said University of Utah and Veterans Administration Dr. Christopher Duncan. "They'll have far better control and be able to feel the things that they touch."
The saga of Pezzarossi's right arm goes back 25 years when he served as a scout in the Army's 19th Delta Recon Unit, stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. While on the base, he took a spill that broke the scaphoid bone, one of eight small bones that make up the carpal bones of the wrist.
After a stint on medical leave he got his cast off. "I couldn't move my hand. Couldn't move my fingers. I couldn't move anything."
Hand specialists in Kentucky, where he was born and raised, told him he suffered from reflex sympathetic dystrophy, also known as complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS). There is no cure for the disease, whose symptoms include intense pain and swelling and stiffness in affected joints.
Pezzarossi received an honorable discharge from the Army in 1993 because of his injury, and he went on to hold various jobs over the years, including selling cars and cell phones. Though his arm was functional on some days, "It always felt like I just broke it," he said.
Things got much worse in 2012.
Pezzarossi was riding a horse on vacation in Park City, Utah, when the horse made a misstep that sent him plunging off a cliff. He broke his already damaged right arm in numerous places and had other injuries as well. "My helmet was in pieces," he said. "I was cut up pretty good."
He later had surgery that left him with an arm full of hardware and a wrist that was crooked, tilted toward the inside.
Meanwhile, the CRPS had gotten worse. "You feel like you are on fire," he said.
After seeing more specialists in New Orleans and in Metairie, Pezzarossi was pointed towards the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, where he is now under the care of Duncan and Dr. Douglas Hutchinson, an orthopedic surgeon. Both are affiliated with the University of Utah and the Veterans Administration.
Hutchinson will perform this week's surgery and implant 32 electrodes into Pezzarossi's forearm, Duncan said. After a month of healing, he will be equipped with an i-limb quantum hand, which Duncan called "state-of-the-art in commercial prosthetics."
The hope is that Pezzarossi will be outfitted with the even more sophisticated LUKE hand and wrist in about a year, Duncan said. "It's brand, brand new."
The LUKE is a "fairly dexterous" hand whose fingers can be moved independently and with a wrist that can flex and twist, Duncan said.
Pezzarossi should be able to control the LUKE by flexing or tensing his arm.
But first, doctors must use computers to match up the electrodes implanted in Pezzarossi's forearm to the corresponding sensors in the prosthetic hand.
The military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is behind the creation, using technology developed by DEKA Integrated Solutions Corp. of Manchester, N.H. Military veterans who participated in the initial studies are first in line for the LUKEs, the first of which were delivered to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland in December.
The University of Utah's Gregory A. Clark, one of the world's renowned neuro engineers, is working with Duncan and Hutchinson in the clinical trials.
The VA and clinical trial sponsors will be footing the medical bills, but the Pezzarossis face travel and lodging expenses for what is likely to be numerous trips to Utah over the next year or so. They've created a fund on YouCaring.com for donations.
In Pezzarossi's view, losing part of the arm — which he usually keeps wrapped in a compression sleeve and a brace — is a no brainer. He's in pain and can't move the arm or the fingers at all.
"It feels at least eight, 10, 12 times a day like I just re-broke everything."
Pezzarossi, who lives in the Fontainebleau subdivision with wife Jennifer and 13-year-old stepdaughter Makayla, readily admits that having much of his arm amputated is frightening. But he hopes it will lead to a better life for himself or others.
"I'm scared to death. I'm real excited that I might have a hand that works someday.
"I have nothing to lose. If what we're doing today helps someone who had their arm shot off five years ago . . . I'll still do it. If you can guarantee me that it will help someone down the road, even if it doesn't work for me, I'll still do it."