April 10th, 2019 | Published in Amputee Stories
Electrician Reacts To Double Amputation: “I’ll Make It Work.”
On a typical utility pole, a power distribution wire will have a standard voltage of 7,200 volts. Surviving a 7,200-volt shock is almost unheard of.
It was 2004, and Livingston, Texas native Ronnie Hindsman was doing what he’d done a thousand times before – a simple job out of a bucket truck for the Sam Houston Electric Cooperative where he’d been working for the last 23 years. It was a job he’d done so many times that he didn’t bother wearing the rubber gloves.
Ronnie can’t clearly remember the electrical shock that changed the rest of his life. “There are things some people just get too comfortable working on. I only remember some of the accident,” he said. “I didn’t know anything for five days.” The high-voltage accident cost him both of his arms above the elbow, and he spent 45 days in the hospital, followed by two weeks of additional rehabilitation and surgery on his shoulder.
When he was ready to receive one of his two prostheses, his rehabilitation specialist, Dr. William Donovan, referred him to Ted Muilenburg, CP, FAAOP.
“I saw Ronnie three times in December 2004, and almost thirty times in 2005,” Ted said. “I spent a lot of time with him in order to build the prostheses that would suit his needs.”
At first, they went back and forth on all the electric options because, Ted said, you hear so much about the high tech prostheses. “I sat down for a few hours and put together a long detailed list on what types of electric components I would build for him if he wanted it,” Ted said.
Initially, Ted fit Ronnie with a sophisticated electric wrist on the left side, and a conventional (body powered) prosthesis on the right with a custom harness that enabled him to lock and unlock the wrist rotation unit.
“The electric wrist was just a little heavier,” Ted explained. “He looks at me, and he says, ‘It’s just too heavy.’”
Many patients come to Ted looking for a miracle. “They really drive you to try everything that you possibly can to help them,” he said. “I put myself in their situation and ask, what would I do? We’re trying to make the impossible work.”
Having no electric components is unusual for someone with amputations to both arms. According to Ted, when Ronnie decided he didn’t want to use the electric wrist but two conventional ones, “I told him he couldn’t do it, and he said he would. And he did. He said, ‘I’ll make it work.’ Even though he could barely do it at first, he was able to make it work well enough for him, so that it was better than an electric wrist.”
On his right side, Ronnie uses a standard style five hook made of titanium and a Texas Assistive Device (TAD) Five-Function Wrist (its functions are flexion, extension, supination, pronation, and a disk connect feature for the hook). He has an internal locking elbow with a locking humeral rotator and flexible frame socket.
On the left, he has a 555 hook, the Five-Function Wrist, an internal locking elbow with a locking liner, and a flexible frame socket.
“It is the most functional wrist flexion rotation, light weight unit available. It suited him,” Ted said.
There were many fittings, many adjustments over the course of the year. “The length was determined after a lot of work meeting his specifications – we spent a lot of time shortening the prostheses to suit his needs.”
It took Ronnie a few weeks to learn the motions with the prostheses. “After I got both of them, I just had to work with them,” Ronnie said. Nevertheless, he’ll be the first to say that he still has a lot to figure out.
It was on December 8, 2005 that Ronnie returned to work, where he is limited on how much weight he can pick up. “No more than 50 pounds,” he said, and then laughed. “But I would forget and try to pick it up. Ted saw plenty of me.” For a while, Ronnie would go in to see Ted every week.
In 2009, he has only gone to see Ted nine times, mostly for repairs. Ted said, “When someone loses both their arms, they’re using the prostheses pretty much from the moment they get up until they go to bed, because they can’t do much without them. The wrist units have a lot of little parts that go out over a period of time. Just from consistent use, they need maintenance.”
He added, “There are so many details involved in fitting a patient with these wrists.”
As backup, Ronnie received a new pair of prostheses this year too, and he has extra parts. “If I break a cable or break a strap, I have repair stuff now. I can try to repair it myself, or get someone to help.”
But if he can avoid getting help, he will. He’s been married more than 11 years, and asked his wife to stop helping with every little thing. “Lots of ladies here at work try to help, but I don’t let them. If I don’t learn to do it, I’ll never be able to do it. I like being independent.”
Even after the accident, “I didn’t ever think I’d lose my independence,” he said. “For a while, I always had to have people with me, and it was frustrating – I couldn’t drive, couldn’t go anywhere. It was hard on me and on my wife.”
Every day, Ronnie works to be self-sufficient, and he continues to improve. “Nothing’s really kept me down,” he said. “I try to do anything I did before. Usually I don’t ask for help unless I really need it.”
Today, Ronnie works mainly in the safety and training department of the electrical cooperative, doing a lot of new-hire training. In March 2009, Ronnie was honored with the “Unsung Hero” award from Texas Electric Cooperatives for his many years as an instructor and his contributions to the success of Loss Control line technician schools.
His personal story comes up at work, as respecting safety rules is an important part of the training he does. His hooks serve as a reminder to anyone he finds not using a hardhat or rubber gloves.
For the work computer, he uses a special mouse pad that he can operate with his hook. He also has steering knobs for driving in his work truck, his personal truck, and even his boat. He owned the boat before the accident and is glad he can continue fishing. “Mostly I do fishing in spring. I have rods made up that go in where I take out my left hook – so the rod stays in my left arm and I reel it in with my right hook.”
Year round, he continues one of his favorite pastimes – cooking. “I love to cook on the grill and the barbecue pit. My wife tries to help, and I tell her no. If I let someone help me do it, then I’ll never do it,” he said. Although he isn’t baking yet, he grills everything from steaks and chicken to pork chops and ribs on the pit.
In the fall, he hunts deer and hogs. Currently, he has devices that allow him to use the guns, but he’d like to find a way to hold the guns and pull the trigger instead of using adaptive devices. “I have crossbows, rifles, and shotguns,” he said. “It sits on a swivel chair, and when I move, it moves with me.”
While the idea of hunting alone appeals to him – and he thinks he’d be able to do it – he hunts with friends. “But I’m always thinking ahead,” he said. “Sometimes I’m by myself.” He does have a knife attachment, as well as rope in his truck for loading up his deer. “Most times, there’s someone to help me out with taking care of the animal.”
He said, “I’ve got some really good friends. And the company I work for has been really good, too.”
It might take him longer to do things that used to be simple, but he said the important part is that he’s getting them done.
At home, he and his wife have settled back into the routine – though it is a different routine from before the accident. After the initial adjustment period, he no longer needs her help with getting dressed. But some things he is still trying to find a way to do himself – like applying the roll-on gel pads. “I can put the arms on and the T-shirt on, but I can’t put the roll-on on my arms. I just haven’t figured it out yet.”
For Ronnie, the process is ongoing. “I’m always thinking about how to do things,” he said. “I figure it out.”