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Retired Haysville teacher back home after making medical history

Published: Mar. 24, 2021 at 10:40 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - A retired Haysville science teacher is home after spending the past week in New York City, making medical history.

Last week, Eyewitness News told the story of Sondra Stieber as she headed to the Big Apple to receive a new type of bionic arm she can control with her mind. On Wednesday, Stieber discussed her experience and what the new technology means for her and many others around the world.

“It’s amazing how much work it is for your brain to learn to operate something that’s technically not part of your body using just your brain,” said Sondra Stieber Wednesday after landing back in Wichita.

It was a momentous homecoming Wednesday after Stieber’s plane landed at Wichita’s Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport. As her family cheered, she raised her new prosthetic arm and waved.

“Bionic woman is here,” her husband, Mark, said as they were greeting family.

Stieber’s cousin Genny Hadsell-Patry said, welcoming her back at the airport, “We’re just excited. We play cards a lot, and now we’re excited. She’s going to be able to hold her cards. She can do her own shuffling now. Couldn’t be happier.”

Although Stieber admits the first hand of the game might take some work.

“I’ll be really fun to play cards with because when I get really excited, it spins around so everybody will be able to see my hand,” she said.

Three years ago, a blood clot led to the amputation of her left forearm and hand. Now, she is the second person to receive the cutting-edge prosthetic, which is among the closest technology can come to replace an actual arm and hand.

“Grateful for all the support,” Stieber said after landing in Wichita Wednesday. “All the people that you see here have spent the last three years really sticking with me to make this a reality.”

Stieber explained that her prosthetic includes a myoelectric hand that is externally powered and multifunctional, using pattern recognition software connected to her through osseointegration.

“So I learned all the official terminology,” she said.

Essentially what that all means is that she has a prosthetic arm and hand that she can control with her mind.

“This is a game-changer,” said Mike Reynolds. He’s an Ascension Via Christi Occupational Therapist who has been working with Stieber following her amputation. “Most of the previous prosthetics use some kind of a muscle-activated prosthetic or some type of joint movement or muscle activation. This doesn’t use any one of those. This opens the door to all kinds of options.”

During last week’s trip to New York City, she took ownership of the prosthetic and began learning how to use it. While in NYC, she also met with the first patient to have received this prosthetic arm type.

“I made my doctors do cartwheels,” Stieber said. “They had said if I would be able to open and close by the end of the first week, they’d do cartwheels.”

Now, the most wonderful part is coming back home to show it off.

“Excited, of course, about the functionality and things I’ll be able to do like hugging my grandkids,” said Stieber. “My one grandson is only four years old, so most of his life, at least since he can talk, he’s always been waiting for me to get my robot arm. So today he said, ‘grandma, I’ve been waiting my whole life for this.’”

Stieber said what this provides is giving her independence back, including getting back into the classroom.

“Being able to work and function like I used to. I was a middle school science teacher. That job requires two hands. I retired, but with this development, I’m thinking, maybe I don’t need to stay retired,” she said.

There’s still a lot of therapy and learning ahead for Stieber and her team at Ascension Via Christi to master her new arm and hand.

Reynolds said, “Bookend to a long journey for her. It’s something that she’s been chasing for a long, long time, and we’re very, very happy and excited not only for Sondra but also to continue our journey and learning about how this new technology works.”

“Picking up small objects or learning to run a computer mouse again. Learning to open and close on demand, so I don’t shake your hand and squeeze too tight,” Stieber said.

That’s not the end of the work for this arm. Stieber is using it as a way to show what the future looks like for prosthetics.

Stieber said, “I’m an advocate for the Amputee Coalition, and traditional prostheses are barbaric, especially for upper limb amputees. They’re just terrible, so what I hope is this becomes the norm, that I’ll only be patient number two for a very short amount of time. The next time someone loses a limb, they’ll have hope they’ll get something this cool.”

She said there’s a woman in Salina who had her arm amputated, and based on Stieber’s experience, is also looking to get this technology. Stieber said she’s planning to visit with her soon.

“I flew out there two and a half years ago (to New York City) and had my first set of tests and found out I was a candidate,” said Stieber. “That was the first time after losing my arm that I really thought that it could be something positive.”

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