Today, for the first time ever, I watched my 6-year-old son use his right hand.
Have you ever thought about what it would be like to have no right hand? Seriously. Have you? Think about it for a second.
Maybe that’s a weird thing to think about if you’re a two-handed person. Hands are something we take for granted. But I think about it a lot because I see someone do it every day — my son Zack has a limb difference.
My husband and I adopted Zack from China when he was 2. His adoption was categorized as a special-needs adoption because “hand deformity” was listed on some paperwork. But “special needs” was never a label I applied to this child, even in my head.
Zack’s doctors call this condition symbrachydactyly. We just call it his “little hand” because that’s what it is (that, and symbrachydactyly is freaking hard to say).
We’ve never focused on what Zack can’t do because of what he can do. At almost 7, he plays soccer. He’s enrolled in martial arts (green belt, holla!). He plays with LEGO, draws pictures, and makes up stories to go with the pictures. He stuffs his pockets with grass, pebbles, and other unidentifiable bits of “nature.” He sneaks into the pantry, stands on a chair to reach the treats on the top shelf. He denies sneaking the Oreos even though his teeth are caked with telltale chocolate crumbs.
He’s adapted to not having a right hand, well, because he’s had to.
Zack realizes he’s different — because, of course, he does — but for the most part, life is ordinary. We’ll have the occasional insensitive comment from a kid who doesn’t know better and the uncomfortably long stares from curious adults (who do know better), but overall, we haven’t had many problems.
However, I’d be naïve to believe my limb-difference kid isn’t going to experience teasing, exclusion, and general assholery. Because he will.
We researched prosthetic hands when Zack was a toddler but were advised against it. We were told small children and cumbersome prostheses didn’t mix and wouldn’t improve Zack’s quality of life, so we’ve held off since then.
But then last year, we learned about an organization called E-Nable that provides plans for various types of prosthetic hands that can be made with a 3D printer and a few other easily obtained supplies. E-Nable collaborates with a variety of professionals on what designs work best for different kinds of limb differences — there are variances depending on how much of an arm or a nub is present — and helps connect people who need hands with organizations that have 3D printers.
E-Nable hands can be made for only $50 and are relatively simple to print and put together. They can also be made in varying colors — if you can find 3D printer filament in your desired color, you’re in luck.
The fact that these hands are made with a printer and bits and pieces we ordered from Amazon? Mind. Blown.
Zack saw us looking at pictures of hands online and overheard his dad and I talking about the possibility of getting one for him.
“I want a robot hand,” he declared immediately. “It will be gold. I will be just like Anakin Skywalker.”
“I’m getting a golden robot hand,” Zack started telling everyone who would listen — his teacher, people at the martial arts dojo, random strangers at the grocery store … you name it!
Mind you, his dad and I had done nothing more than peruse the website and marvel at the level of modern technology, but Zack shared the news of his robot hand — a term he came up with all on his own — with absolutely everyone.
The only answer was to get on board. Obviously.
And a year later, my son is using his right hand for the first time. E-Nable connected us with a chapter in Houston, which is approximately four hours from where we live, who then connected us with a charter school specializing in STEM in San Antonio, 20 minutes from home. We sent an email and measurements and six weeks later, here we are.
My son has a right hand, and I’m in awe of him, the technology, and the tenacity of the people involved in making this for him — particularly the high school sophomore named Justin who made this hand.
Want to know what I was doing in tenth grade science class? Trying not to get caught writing angst-ridden poetry while I was supposed to be learning about velocity.
“I can’t wait to get my robot hand,” Zack whispered in my ear this morning, after crawling into bed with me. “But I’m kind of scared.”
“Most new things are scary,” I answered. “You’ll be great.” And he was.
Today, I watched my son use his right hand for the first time ever. I watched him play with toys — two-handed. I watched him scratch his nose with one hand while holding an apple in the other hand. I watched him arm wrestle with his dad. I watched him shake hands by putting his right hand out and grasping someone else’s right hand, something he has never been able to do — simple things we take for granted.
I was the typical proud mama, snapping pictures of my awesome kid doing awesome things. The local press took an interest in the project, and when a TV reporter asked to interview me, I didn’t have time to feel nervous or awkward. I just answered questions about my family’s story and how we’d happened upon E-Nable and the School of Science and Technology.
“I saw you taking pictures of your son,” said the reporter, conversationally. “What do you think this means for him and how do you feel about all of this?” This question I wasn’t prepared for.
“I don’t have words for how I feel,” I said, my voice wavering. “My son told me he wanted to be able to hold his lunchbox and carry his milk at the same time. He said ‘now I will be able to carry my milk.’”
If you’ve never considered what it’s like to not have two hands, perhaps you don’t realize what a big deal this is, but it is a big deal to us.
I’m not suggesting Zack wouldn’t be capable of doing great things without his robot hand; I’m not suggesting all limb difference kids need prostheses to make their lives easier and better.
But for us … for Zack? This makes a difference.
Thanks to a 16-year-old boy named Justin Cantu, my son can carry his milk.
And that is huge.