A ‘bionic man’ who was suicidal after losing his lower right arm in an industrial accident has declared that he would never go back to his ‘able bodied’ days.
Nigel Ackland was one of the first people ever to be fitted with a Terminator-style bebionic3 hand and is now traveling the world to speak at conferences to explain the benefits of the incredible mechanical limb.
Yet just three years ago, the 54-year-old, of Royston, Cambridgeshire, fell into a ‘very dark emotional state’ and was often mocked and taunted for the hook-like prosthetics he had been provided with after the accident.
Nigel lost part of his arm when it became caught in an industrial blending machine at the Johnson Matthey smelting plant in Brimsdown in 2006. After undergoing months of surgery along with several less advanced prosthetics, he rediscovered everyday activities such as dressing himself, peeling vegetables and typing using a bionic limb that responds to signals from muscles in his upper arm.
For most people technology comes in the form of laptops and iPhones. For Ackland, it is literally a part of him, helping each day in ways most take for granted. However; he feels the most extraordinary thing is the psychological benefits that have lifted him from his emotional nadir. He said:
“Some people don’t understand how alienating losing a limb can be. After the accident I lost my reason to be, I just couldn’t see a future. The bebionic3 hand has given me back a life when I didn’t think one existed.
“Before it, I had a simple tool, a piece of functional kit. And if I never had to wear it again, it wouldn’t bother me. I was walking around with a metal hook that looked ghastly.
“People used to look at me in disgust and talk about me as if I wasn’t there, because I was disabled and obviously deaf! I’ve heard everything from the mildly offensive, ‘Look at him with his hook,’ to the downright abusive ‘spaz’ comments. It gets to you.”
“Now the reaction is completely different. People are amazed, they think it’s cool. If I go to Tesco, I have to leave my arm at home in order to get around because I have to add an hour to my time with it! Everyone I see smiles when they walk away from me. That didn’t use to happen.”
He continues, “That kind of experience changes you. I’m totally different. I’ve got empathy now. If I saw someone in a wheelchair in the past I’d think ‘unlucky’. Now, my attitude is entirely different. I want to know how they cope, what makes them get up in the morning. I want to talk about it.”
Nigel hopes that lessons can be learned from his experiences, and the holistic benefits of the latest bionic technology:
“I am now aware that with the right support, help and prosthetics, a life changing injury doesn’t have to mean a life that’s over. I went through years of procedure at great financial and psychological cost, before finding something that enabled me to once again contribute positively to society.
“The solution for so many people is there and it’s simple. A guy comes into hospital with no legs, no independence, no job and no social life. What happens? He gets the kind of limited prosthetics, and help at home that ensures that things won’t change that much. Why do this when providing the right technology not only liberates people for life but makes great financial sense?”
Nigel, husband to Vanessa, 52, and father to Conor, 20, now believes that his life is better, than ever before:
“Of course there are things that I miss … like touch, vibration playing the saxophone, swimming, wiggling my fingers … but there are so many positives and things are improving all the time. I live in a slightly different world because of the physical limitations but if offered the opportunity to go back to the time before the accident, I don’t think I would. I’m a much better me now. I’m much happier and I’m a nicer guy than I was.”
Nigel realizes the importance of having a strong support network of family and friends, who provide the perfect balance of tough love, humor and support.
“After the accident, I did say, ‘Why me?’ You know what my wife said? ‘Why not? What makes you so special?’ That’s just what I needed, and my friends and family have the knack of knowing what’s appropriate at what time.”
“When I came out of hospital with my arm chopped off, they stuck a blown-up rubber glove on the stump! My son, Connor, will often pull the arm off and run away!
“My best mate’s the same. He recently said, ‘How long ago did the accident happen?’ I told him it had been seven years. ‘Blimey’, he said, ‘and you’re still going on about it!’”
At present, it appears the entire world is going on about it. A video and interviews of Nigel showing his bebionic3 hand have had almost three million hits on YouTube. Last year he headlined conferences in New York, Moscow, St Petersburg and Budapest.
“Speaking at the conferences is nerve-wracking but it’s exciting, and a chance to meet the most incredible people. My life has changed immeasurably. When the media come around, I answer the door with my old bit of kit on and then show them what they want to see. It’s the only way I can quickly convey the level of transformation I’ve experienced.”
Nigel is certainly spreading the word. Thanks to his experience, latent amputees are becoming aware of the advances in technology and asking what it can do for them.
However, a recent enquirer was more interested in the man than the machine. It was Nigel’s sister, Debby, who met him for the first time in 42 years because she’d seen him in the press with his bebionic3.
A welcome outcome from a media circus in which one suspects Nigel Ackland was always destined to perform.
“My wife understands the benefits of the media and knows that I enjoy it but she is very protective. It’s a balance.”
“She knows what it’s like to be with someone who hadn’t smiled for five years.”