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Ashford teaching assistant's life could be transformed by £12k bionic Hero Arm


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Born without the lower half of her left arm, Amy Brown knows about overcoming adversity and the pain of being different when growing up.

Now a teaching assistant and mum to two young boys, she tells our reporter Rhys Griffiths how she hopes to raise £12,000 to pay for a life-changing robotic Hero Arm.

Amy Brown with her sons AJ and Phill. Picture: Amy Brown
Amy Brown with her sons AJ and Phill. Picture: Amy Brown

"Holding both my boys' hands at the same time. That makes me feel quite emotional."

Amy Brown's voice catches just a little, when asked what one thing she yearns to do if her dreams of being fitted with a bionic arm come true.

"I can't really take my boys out on my own because they just do what they want," she explained. "Having only one hand, it is hard to hold both their hands and keep them safe, so we just stay in and play in the garden, or my dad will help me take them out.

"But it will have to be planned, so just to stand there and have a boy in each hand and just walk with them on my own, it'll just be crazy, in a good way. Things like that I think people take for granted."

Born with the lower half of her left arm missing, the 27-year-old teaching assistant from Ashford knows all about overcoming obstacles put in her way.

Amy tries the bionic Hero Arm for the first time

Taken into foster care when she was 10 years old, the former Homewood School pupil was teased because of her disability and eventually refused to stay in class when it became to much to bear.

"I got bullied a lot, because having half your arm missing is a physical disability that you can visually see, you look different, and there's nothing really you can do about that.

"I ended up going to quite a few schools because of being bullied, and then when I was 14 I just decided I didn't want to go back to school and I ended up going into work, I worked at a garden centre cafe.

"Then I ran away from foster care when I was 15, and told the social worker I'll end up with my own place and working by the time I was 16.

"A week after my 16th birthday I was working two jobs and had my own private rented place."

Teenager Tilly Lockey uses two bionic Hero Arms. Picture: Open Bionics
Teenager Tilly Lockey uses two bionic Hero Arms. Picture: Open Bionics

Now, thanks to the pioneering work of Bristol-based Open Bionics, Amy has the hope of transforming her life with the aid of a robotic prosthetic, called the Hero Arm.

Last year she came across a post on Instagram which featured a girl called Tilly Lockey, who contracted a form of meningitis called meningococcal septicaemia as a baby and had to have both her hands amputated.

Now fitted with two bionic Hero Arms, Tilly has become an ambassador for the company producing these life-changing devices.

As soon as Amy saw them, she knew she had to find out if it could also work for her.

"I didn't realise that I would be able to work a robotic prosthetic because I have only got about two inches below the elbow.

A cast is made to fit the bionic Hero Arm prosthetic. Picture: Amy Brown
A cast is made to fit the bionic Hero Arm prosthetic. Picture: Amy Brown

"And because I am not an amputee, I was born like it, I don't have the muscle memory of using the muscles to open and close my left hand, because obviously I have never had it, and that's how the Hero Arm works, it works on two sensors.

"I have had my first consultation with the guy who does it, and I have tried it out.

"I managed to open and close the hand within 15 minutes, which I know might sound like a long time, but actually was really quick considering I've never used anything like that before.

"He was really impressed and was definitely happy to say that I would be able to use one.

"It's a feeling like I've never really felt before, but the funny thing is when I first had the sensors on and had to try to find the right muscles for it to work, it was the middle finger that kept twitching first and we just couldn't stop laughing.

Joel Gibbard CEO and Samantha Payne COO from Open Bionics. Picture: Open Bionics
Joel Gibbard CEO and Samantha Payne COO from Open Bionics. Picture: Open Bionics

"It's one thing that I always said, it will be just my luck, especially working in a school, I'll be walking round and doing that without realising. That was the first finger that I managed to move!

"But when I managed to open and close the hand, it was such an achievement. It was exciting and emotional, and now I feel I need one."

The Hero Arm is described by Open Bionics as "the world's most affordable multi-grip prosthetic arm" and it is suitable for below-elbow amputee adults and children aged eight and above.

Joel Gibbard, who started the company with co-founder Samantha Payne, began tinkering with robotic hands and 3D prosthetics aged just 17. Now his mission is to "turn children with limb differences into bionic heroes and make science fiction a reality".

Which is all a far cry from the type of prosthetics Amy experienced when she was growing up.

Amy Brown was born without the lower half of her left arm. Picture: Amy Brown
Amy Brown was born without the lower half of her left arm. Picture: Amy Brown

"I had a prosthetic when I was younger," she said, "but I didn't really like it because it looked awful, it didn't do anything and it was heavy. It didn't really help, it just made life harder.

"It annoys me, and I mean this in the most respectful way possible, that there isn't help out there for people that want to have something that they should already have.

"If people who are born with a missing arm, or end up having to have it amputated, want to be able to have a robotic prosthetic they should be able to know about it and know how to get help to fund it if they can't afford to. Instead of just having the ones on the NHS that don't do anything, because they don't help, they make life harder.

"The ones that I had were just literally the hand in one position, it's heavier, and you get uncomfortable and you can't move them.

"We don't want it for the look, we want it to actually help us.

Amy Brown was born without the lower half of her left arm and now hopes to raise money to fund a bionic Hero Arm prosthetic. Picture: Amy Brown
Amy Brown was born without the lower half of her left arm and now hopes to raise money to fund a bionic Hero Arm prosthetic. Picture: Amy Brown

"That's why the Hero Arm is amazing, because it actually does what we need it to do. We don't want one just for the look: it's not an accessory, it's a necessity."

However such innovative technology does not come cheap.

Amy needs to raise £12,000 if she is to be able to proceed with being fitted with her new bionic arm - and make a reality of her dreams of holding both her sons AJ and Phill by the hand for the very first time.

In a bid to make this come true, she has set up a GoFundMe page in the hope of raising this life-changing sum of money.

"When I first looked into this I said to my husband, 'I feel selfish, it's a lot of money that I want to try to raise for myself'.

The Hero Arm is made by Bristol firm Open Bionics. Picture: Open Bionics
The Hero Arm is made by Bristol firm Open Bionics. Picture: Open Bionics

"I spoke to people at work as well, and they said it can help you change your life, it's not being selfish, it's just wanting to be able to have something that you never had before.

"I know its OK to be different but you don't always feel like that when you are the one who is different.

"I think it will help with my confidence. Instead of people being like 'oh my god, look at her' they're going to be 'wow, look at that hand and look what it does'. It's going to be a positive energy and not a negative criticism all the time.

"Because I work around children it's good to let them be aware that people are different, and that's OK, and that even though someone is different they are still human, they are still the same as everybody else."

To support Amy's fundraising effort, click here

Read more: All the latest news from Ashford

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