“The first thing I did with my new hands was a kitten,” Mia Rodriguez said as she put on her prosthesis and showed off the catching motions she can now make.
Mia received a prosthetic limb from the Uruguayan Manos de Heros Foundation, which designs and prints hands and arms with 3D technology for children and adults throughout the country.
Since 2020, the Foundation has distributed over 100 free prostheses, most of them to families who come from impoverished backgrounds.
“Now I can hold a pencil with one hand. Previously, I had to do it with both hands because my fist would not close,” explained the 11-year-old girl.
Beside him, his mother, Ana Van López, looked on excitedly. Her daughter’s fingers were not fully developed and she could not grasp objects without a prosthesis.
The 28-year-old woman lives with her partner and their four children in an abandoned factory in a slum area in Salinas Norte, about 40 km from Montevideo, and earns her income by doing informal work such as collecting and selling pineapples and firewood. , The family’s income is about 8,000 pesos a month, about $200. Mia’s mother said, “With the winter coming, we have started making carts of firewood.”
“I’m so grateful, I thought my daughter was the only one with this problem, I’d never seen someone like her in the hospital or on the street. It’s been very difficult for us,” said Van Lopez, who is the girl’s nurse. Trying to get state disability benefits for a little over 15,000 pesos a month, the equivalent of about $380. In addition, they receive an equal amount of state support, he said.
According to the 2011 National Institute of Statistics official census, approximately 16% of the Uruguayan population registers some level of disability, most mild.
Mia takes a few seconds to show how she uses the prosthetics she was given last week. His movements are with the threads that are taut with the movement of his wrists. They are purple, with pink details “because they combine” and with unicorn tracings. Other kids like the colors of their favorite soccer club or the ones that resemble the hands of a superhero.
Prostheses can be mechanical or electronic. They are placed on the hands, forearms, elbows, or shoulders according to the needs of each individual. Andrea Kukerman, an electrical engineer and the founder and director of Manos de Heros, explained that it takes a couple of weeks to design an arm, print it, and put it together.
The prostheses are free and the foundation is financed by contributions and donations from private companies. In Europe, a bionic hand with more advanced technology could cost up to $100,000, the foundation said.
Starting elementary school was complicated for Mia, it was a bigger universe than kindergarten and sometimes hostile. “They looked at him and laughed at him more than once,” said his mother.
The girl did not want to eat with other students and asked to have lunch alone in the kitchen. “She didn’t want to be seen because she couldn’t hold her fork with one hand. Nor did she cut meat, sometimes she held it with her hands,” her mother recalled.
This year one of her classmates arrived at school without the oxygen tank she used to carry after starting medical treatment. That was a breaking point. “Mia suddenly felt alone, she said there was no solution for her,” said Luz Alves, a teacher who contacted the foundation, remembering the withdrawn girl who always hid in the pocket of her overalls.
Since the family does not usually travel to the center of Montevideo, the teacher took them in their car on the day the prosthesis was tested. “He barely uttered a word,” the teacher recalled. “I was terrified. I didn’t know if I would be able to keep them,” Mia said.
“He hugged me first. I saw she was very emotional,” Cukerman said at the time of the interview, showing her the prosthesis: the arm of an adult who had been in an accident.
On one of the walls of the office, there is a painting with photographs of children and adults who have received prostheses. “The idea is that they don’t feel alone,” he explained. The pictures show the children striking poses with hands and arms in vibrant colors like orange, green – or Spider-Man. Those adults have a more discreet look, mimicking most of the skin color and details.
On the day of the exam, Mia kept watching everything. “We showed him our hands, his face lit up, his eyes wide, he could barely speak,” Kukerman recalled.
They explained to him how the prosthetics worked, the movements he needed to make to open and close his fist, and warned him that some adjustments might have to be made. Mary put her hands together, touched each other, and tried to move. “It took seconds, they were perfect,” said his mother. First, he drew, and later, already at school, he tried a glass and drank water.
Now he’s exploring the possibilities his prosthetics have given him, such as writing and holding a fork and spoon with one hand. Cutting with a knife is more complicated and he hasn’t dared to tie his shoelaces yet. And although he admitted that it was easier for him to write without the prosthesis, he said that “Now I write slowly but with one hand.”
Mia usually does not wear prostheses at home. In foundation, he explained that this is normal and is not intended to recover total motor skills or completely replace a lost arm or hand. “We want to restore their faith. Many people in medicine say they don’t need prostheses, because in some cases they don’t always need them at a functional level, but they forget about the emotional aspect. ,” Kukerman said.
In Mia’s case, they were an obvious necessity. While leaving the foundation with prostheses, she was greeted with a queenly gesture upon returning home. “I wanted to go to school, it was a party,” said the teacher.