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 56-year-old mother of eight and stepmother of two. “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 wounds 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, had worked to get insurance companies to pay premiums. 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, so giving of her time, such a great mentor and role model. I think Julie and I share a very positive outlook so this has been very helpful.
Stieber is now a cyborg, having returned to Wichita from New York a few weeks ago with an osteointegrated myoelectric hand with pattern recognition software.
“It’s a big bite of techno-talk out there,” she laughs, “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 their arm.
A cuff with sensors inside is worn around the upper arm and picks up nerve signals as they travel from the brain to the arm to the microprocessor in the fully functional hand with an opposable thumb – allowing Stieber to move it with his mind.
Dombo, 66, who was shot dead during an attempted theft from the Derby AT&T store in 2015, prompted Blue Cross / Blue Shield of Kansas to cover myoelectric and microprocessor prostheses for major health insurance plans. large medical groups fully insured.
“Sondra’s hands are state of the art,” Dombo said. “This is where the future of prosthetics is going. This is not new stuff; these are things amputees need and deserve. “
Dombo said an Amputee Coalition bill that has languished in the US Senate since “probably 2014” reads in part:
“Amputees deserve anything that allows them to regain the quality of life they can return to – 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 amputee training on how to get state bills passed. Dombo and her husband John were in attendance in 2019 and she has set a goal of getting the bill passed in Kansas.
With the help of a lawyer / lobbyist who gave of his time and unwavering determination, Dombo was able to get Blue Cross / Blue Shield to change their policy to cover myoelectric and microprocessor prostheses funded by the group from the first of this year.
of the group plan, and the Haysville school district was, “Dombo said,” and that’s the one I was working on to pay
Sondra [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 worth it.
“My doctors are excited about my progress – they even did cartwheels,” she said. “They told me if I could hit a certain milestone by the end of the week they would do cartwheels. I hit this milestone on the first day of therapy, so the doctor moved the table and let me film him doing a cartwheel.
“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 meet the milestones 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 get them to keep paying to fix yours,” she said. “We are working to get Medicare to pay for new products across the country. If Medicare did this, 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 used in therapy at Peeples Prosthetics, who 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 deduct me from tax – I’m not a 501v3, ”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 has been “offered many speeches”.
“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 making it known that better devices exist, this is just going to revolutionize prosthetics for upper limb amputees. It will make all the difference in the world.