A revolutionary surgical procedure combined with exciting new advances in technology offers new hope and help for amputees.
Private Jackson Schroeder, an Army veteran, was one of the first to receive the procedure which he told Fox News Digital changed his life.
The Starfish procedure, as it is called, gave partial hand amputees the ability to move each finger individually with the combination of a myoelectric prosthesis – an entirely new process.
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“When you go through something traumatic that your mind comes to accept is going to change your life, in some form or facet, you kind of start thinking, ‘What next?’,” Schroeder said. “Is there hope?
“This procedure,” he said, “really gave me hope for a more normal future.”
Schroeder, 21, of Casper, Wyoming, first joined the military straight out of high school.
While on vacation in 2019, an accident involving one of his guns resulted in the loss of four fingers from his left hand.
Just four months later, Schroeder was in touch with Drs. Glenn Gaston and Bryan Loeffler – two upper extremity surgeons at OrthoCarolina who developed the Starfish procedure.
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The opportunity before him was a no-brainer, Schroeder said, as his injury threatened to end his first military career.
After being approved as an excellent candidate, Schroeder was the first veteran to undergo this revolutionary operation.
“Almost the day after the operation, I felt like I could use my hand in a different way,” he said.
“It was very different.”
New technology developed in Charlotte, North Carolina, allows the patient to move each finger individually. This is a function that was not available before.
Create an “intuitive and natural” prosthesis
Gaston and Loeffler of OrthoCarolina, the masterminds of the procedure, also started the clinic’s Lost Limb Reconstruction Center.
Gaston told Fox News Digital the idea was floated nearly a decade ago when doctors were discussing the poor quality of prostheses for partial hand amputees.
“They just don’t give good function,” he said.
“You have something that looks like a hand but doesn’t work, or it works but all the fingers open and close at the same time.”
Loeffler added that it came down to “looking at a problem that didn’t have a good solution.”
When part of the hand is amputated, the muscles that control the fingers still exist.
This led Gaston and Loeffler to the dream of making an “intuitive and natural” prosthesis so that recipients could move each finger individually.
Gaston explained that when part of the hand is amputated, the muscles that control the fingers still exist – so the doctors’ mission wasn’t out of reach with new and developing technology.
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“We took the [myoelectric fingers] that existed and we figured out how to make them work best,” Loeffler said.
That way, he added, “a patient could learn to use them without spending hours and hours trying to figure out how to move a finger up and down.”
Doctors called it the Starfish procedure because starfish have the ability to regrow lost limbs on their own. The dissected hand muscles also resemble the sea animal.
The operation transfers the living muscles of the hand under the skin on the back of the hand – which aligns with the sensors in the prosthesis to trigger function.
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After testing the procedure on their first patient in 2016 and seeing “phenomenal” results, the doctors constructed the first prosthesis with help from Hanger Clinic, a medical device company.
“And he [their first patient to receive this] became the first person in the world to have independent finger control of a prosthetic hand,” Gaston said.
25 Successful Starfish Surgeries
Schroeder noted that the procedure isn’t “incredibly invasive,” allowing her to recover quickly. He said he started using the prosthesis and applying it about a month later.
“I don’t think it’s going to be hard to feel uncomfortable in the workplace or to feel like you’re at a disadvantage,” he said.
“I wouldn’t call it a plus, but my friends really think it’s pretty cool,” he also said.
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The procedure has since been successfully administered to 25 patients in OrthoCarolina’s care, including Private Schroeder.
“We have a great affinity for our military at OrthoCarolina,” Gaston said.
“We absolutely have tremendous respect for our military and the service they provide, and we are honored to render any small service in return.”
OrthoCarolina also offers a fellowship that trains four doctors a year – and one of those open slots is always reserved for military doctors.
“So when the opportunity to help Jackson came along, we couldn’t have been more excited,” Gaston said.
Loeffler defended Schroeder as a “polite young man” who was able to face a devastating injury with a positive attitude.
“We were truly privileged to have the opportunity to care for Jackson,” he said, referring to his military service.
“It was a real honor to take his situation and try to make the best of it.”
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Schroeder shared in a sweet moment that he “don’t really know where he would be” without the help of his two doctors.
Gaston said watching “veteran” amputees within the clinic give hope with others has been “really special” as the procedure continues.
“Raise awareness, give hope, recognize that there are now centers of excellence like our clinic that can help these patients,” he noted.
The clinic is now on its third generation of prostheses, Loeffler said. Technology can capture the purpose of surgery “even better” than before.
“So what [Jackson] can do is absolutely amazing,” he said.
“I would honestly say he has probably the best control of a partial prosthetic hand on the face of the earth.”
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Schroeder was removed from his post in May 2021.
He is currently a sophomore at the University of Wyoming studying marketing.