Nicole Kelly, a 28-year-old Iowa native who currently lives in Chicago, was born with just one hand. Her left arm extends about two inches below her elbow, a situation that would normally call for the use of a prosthetic limb. And indeed, all throughout her childhood, Kelly’s parents provided her with custom-fitted, state-of-the-art options for a lower left arm and hand; the only problem, for Kelly, was that “state-of-the-art” didn’t mean much at the time.
“In the world of prosthetics, the last big advancements were made in the 1970s,” Kelly told MUNCHIES. “The available limbs were the most basic technology you can imagine. On me as a young child, it very heavy and very cumbersome, and I had to strap it all the way around my shoulder,” she recalled.
Because the various prosthetics she tried throughout the years were more of a burden than a help to her, Kelly stopped using them, preferring to rely on the use of her right hand and left arm than to mess around with the clunky options available to her.
“It was just much, much easier to not use my prosthetic, ever,” she said. “Each time I’d try a new one, I would wear it for a couple weeks before it inevitably ended up on a shelf in the closet.”
But about a year ago, Kelly’s experience of prosthetics changed when heard about new, cutting edge technology from a Chicago-based firm called Coapt. The company, and others like Baltimore’s Infinite Biomedical Technologies, are using advanced pattern recognition software and engineering developments to create artificial limbs that are highly sensitive and intuitive, giving users the power of fine motor skills such as chopping vegetables or opening a beer.
A former Miss Iowa and a 2014 Miss America contestant, Kelly leveraged the attention she attracted for being one of the few contest participants with a physical disability to become an advocate who travels the country speaking about life with a disability at schools, universities and events. Since being fitted with a Coapt-operated prosthetic last winter, she’s been able to vastly expand her kitchen repertoire.
“Now I can grind salt and pepper over a hot pan while I’m cooking without having to yell, ‘I need a two-handed friend over here!’” she said. “They’re small, but revolutionary, things like that that have been integrated in to make life easier.”
Cleared for daily use by the FDA last year, the Coapt system is installed into upper limb prostheses that users obtain from a healthcare practitioner called a prosthetist. Coapt’s hardware is wired into the artificial limb, where its electrodes record the patterns made by muscle signals firing from nerve impulses in the user’s existing arm. Using the system’s pattern recognition algorithms software, users can train their artificial limbs to respond to these signals, achieving a nuanced range of motion that’s simply impossible to achieve with older, more basic control models of prosthetics.
Through his work as an engineer at the Northwestern University-affiliated Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago, Coapt CEO Blair Lock came to recognize the importance of enabling a newer generation of pattern recognition technology to better detect signals from the body.
“Essentially, we make the brains of the prosthetic,” he told MUNCHIES. “Our bodies are capable of producing a set of electrical signals, and our system uses those signals to decode what the wearer wants to do. It’s a huge shift in how intuitively in how a user can operate these devices.”
“We live in a two-handed world,” Lock continued. “Dressing, cooking, eating, these are activities that are just easier when you have control of two hands.”
When she was invited to speak at a prosthetics conference in Chicago back in 2016, Kelly had more or less turned her back on the limited functions of prosthetic limbs, and wasn’t much inclined to accept the invitation. But she decided to go anyway, and found herself wandering the exhibit hall chatting with various vendors. She accidentally stumbled upon the Coapt booth, she said, where Lock asked her if she ever used a prosthetic.
“I told him, ‘No, and I don’t have any interest in them,’ but he persisted, asking me if he could show me the product. So sort of just to appease him, I sat down,” Kelly recalled.
“So he strapped this cuff with sensors all over it to my arm and said, ‘All you have to do is think about closing your left hand, then think about opening your left hand,’” she continued. “And I’m thinking, ‘I don’t have a left hand, and I’ve never once, in my life thought about having a left hand.’ But sure enough, when I thought about it, the muscles in my forearm moved in a certain way. And the idea is that you can train the hand that these sensors are attached to. That really blew me out the water.”
Within a few months, Kelly had a new prosthetic made and outfitted with the Coapt system. The new limb has helped in many areas of her life, she said, and perhaps most saliently in the kitchen, where she can now more easily take on tasks that those of us with two hands take for granted.
“The kitchen has always been a place I’ve had to learn to adapt to,” she said. “That’s one that’s a little bit harder, when the tools you’re using actually could hurt you.”
By being better able to precisely grip pots, pans, knives and other cooking equipment, Kelly has been able to gain a level of independence and efficiency in the kitchen that was previously out of her reach.
“With cutting vegetables, for instance, things would turn out pretty badly chopped up, and I’d just pass that duty along to a friend. I just decided, ‘I’m probably going to be bad at this for the rest of my life. I’m never going to perfectly mince vegetables.’”
But with her prosthetic, Kelly said, she’s now able to take on more complicated cooking tasks.
“Just yesterday, I roasted some Brussels sprouts in a honey balsamic glaze,” she said. “Nothing fancy, but super delicious.”
There are simpler pleasures, too, that the Coapt system has enabled Kelly to enjoy.
“When I first got it, all my friends wanted me to be able to open a beer,” she said—a motion she’s now got down pat.