ANN ARBOR, MI – Sepsis took Karen Sussex’s right arm about six years ago, but not her positive attitude.
Sussex, from Jackson, loves her low-tech prosthetic arm, adorned with stickers from her beloved Detroit Red Wings and a hook on the end. She even jokes that her nieces and nephews call her “Captain Hook.”
Still, the loss of her arm took away her livelihood on a manufacturing and injection molding assembly line in her hometown. But now, Sussex has found a solution to that as a participant in Michigan Medicine research into robotic arms with fine-motor movement.
Sussex not only takes pride in how this helps her own situation, but also in how it will help others like her.
“I know that it’s helping not only myself, but other people down the road,” she said. “That feeling of being a part of this makes me think let’s do a lot of good things for others.”
Sussex has come to the University of Michigan Kinesiology Building, 830 N. University Ave. in Ann Arbor, for nearly four years while a team of doctoral engineers works to connect signals in her brain to a robotic hand at the end of her arm.
The robotics research is a collaboration between UM’s medical, engineering and kinesiology communities. On the Michigan Medicine side is Dr. Paul Cederna, department chair for plastic surgery. On the strictly engineering side is Cindy Chestak, associate chair for research in biomedical engineering, and Brent Gillespie, professor of mechanical engineering.
When an arm is lost, so are the nerves that connect the brain to the hand, Cederna said. This research grafts small wires into the arm of someone like Sussex, creating an interface by linking the wires, a small muscle and the divided nerve from the lost arm.
“That amplifies those tiny nerve signals,” Cederna said. “So when someone goes to move a prosthetic, they don’t actually have to learn anything, because their brain is doing exactly what it did when they had a hand.”
Without a willing participant, such as Sussex, the research goes nowhere, Cederna said.
“Her contributions are immeasurable,” he said. “We are forever indebted to Karen.”
Sussex makes the 45-minute drive from Jackson to Ann Arbor frequently, as she does part-time work at a parts quality inspection facility in the area. She also checks brake and fuel lines at a company in Manchester, but said she is in the middle of a layoff.
Sussex’s gas and food are covered, and she receives a small stipend for her participation in the research, Cederna said. But money is not the reason Sussex said she offers her time to Michigan Medicine. Her motivation is partially fueled by the initial sensation of being able to control a hand once again.
“I’m amazed at what I can do when I’m (at UM),” she said. “It’s something I never thought I’d be able to do again.”
The current research at UM features a large array of computer equipment and wires that researchers eventually would like to consolidate into hardware small enough to fit inside the arm.
“With Karen, we get to learn more and more and more, so ultimately we can design the device that will be available to the public for widespread use,” Cederna said.
For the experiments, Sussex stands in front of a computer with a real-time image of a hand that she controls with her brain signals. After successfully testing her signals, she then has to concentrate on moving just the robotic hand.
The complicated set-up was at one point intimidating, Sussex said, adding that the early sessions required a lot of mental focus that would wipe her out afterwards. Now, she thrives at “cruising through” the robotic drills, she said.
The secret is distracting herself with discussions about the Red Wings, or general sports talk about the Detroit Tigers or UM football. On this day of experiments, she talks about the job security of Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill.
“It’s a rebuild, people,” she said, in pleading to give Blashill another year. “They’re not gonna win every game!”
If the researchers are the mechanism for the robotic arm, Sussex is the metaphorical driving force that will hopefully help people like her down the line, Cederna said.
“She is actually paving the way for tens of thousands of people in the future to get a hand back like the one they lost,” he said.
“Maybe the reason I lost my arm…it’s a way for me to help others,” Sussex said.
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