Injured Iraq Vet, Using Technology that Helped Him Recover, Aims to Help Others

By Jonathan Kuniholm

On New Years Day 2005, Iraqi insurgents ambushed my U.S. Marine patrol near the Euphrates River. They remotely detonated a device packed with shrapnel and explosives, and then started firing their weapons as the platoon took cover and returned fire. I was wounded in the initial explosion, and my right arm was later amputated below the elbow. Lance Corporal Brian Parello lost his life, as would four other members of my platoon later that month: Sergeant Jesse Strong, Corporal Christopher Weaver, Corporal Jonathan Bowling, and Lance Corporal Karl Linn.

As my family and friends at home celebrated the start of another year, my life changed in a single moment, and I began a new and unexpected journey. Gradually, I would discover that the disability I sustained because of my wounds would create opportunities as well as limitations. That's a lesson I'm still learning every day.

Before my Marine reserve unit was called up and ordered to Iraq, I was working toward a PhD in biomedical engineering at Duke University, and I was a partner in a startup product design firm. I played guitar, had a private pilot's license, and pursued many other interests that I was afraid had ended for me the day I was wounded. On December 29, just before the anniversary of my injury, I took a flight test and regained my pilot's privileges. I hope that some of the projects I'm working on now may eventually create a prosthetic hand that will enable me to finger pick the guitar again.

Technology is playing an enormous role in helping to mitigate the effects of my injury—from prostheses that help to simulate the functions of my lost hand and arm, to Windows-enabled assistive computer technology that has made it possible for me to resume my career.

I have been fitted with three prostheses. The first is a myoelectric prosthesis, which uses the movements of muscles left in my arm to control motorized hand and wrist movements. The second is a body-powered prosthesis, with aircraft cables and rubber bands that allow me to shrug my shoulder or extend my arm to open a hook or a hand device. And the third is a shorter arm that holds a drawing pen or guitar pick.

Assistive technology picks up where my prostheses leave off. I'm an engineer, so drawing is an essential professional skill for me, and there are two pieces of technology that are critical to helping me draw again. The first is the prosthetic device that holds my pens, but that alone wouldn't be enough. My control isn't good enough to draw on paper. The second is a Cintiq tablet device, with an undo key that allows me to erase a stroke and try again without affecting the rest of my drawing.

For CAD work, I have a Space Ball, which is a 3-D orientation device that I can easily use with just my left hand. The Space Ball is indispensable for one-handed CAD work, because orienting the CAD model on the screen typically requires a combination of mouse movements and keystrokes.

I have always been a problem solver, and that helped me cope during my recovery. As soon as I had to start going through life with only one hand, it became a kind of game to see how many things I could do one-handed.

My wife is a medical resident, working more than 80 hours a week, so I spend a lot of my time taking care of my six-year-old son Sam and trying to do things around the house. One of the first things I did after I got my prosthesis was to install a ceiling fan we bought Sam for his birthday. It looks like an airplane propeller, and when Sam saw it sitting in the living room, he asked why I hadn't put it up. I couldn't think of a good answer to that. It took us the better part of a day to install it, but we got it done.

In school I was a biomedical engineer, and I have since decided to refocus my research on prosthetic technology. The majority of this technology is designed by people who don't use it, and like other current technology, prosthetics are subject to the same "one size fits most" economics as mass-market consumer goods. Yet, the commercial market for arm prosthetics is quite small, and each person's needs are unique. People have different capabilities and different needs.

I now have two professional goals that are intertwined. First, as an academic, I hope to make some improvements to the most advanced prosthetics we currently have. Everyone is very impressed with what these prostheses can do for people, but they represent 20-year-old technology that hasn't been significantly improved in two decades. Second, I am working with my business partners and others to develop designs for prosthetic devices that a user or prosthetist could download at no cost, modify and use to build a solution to their specific problem. One such common problem is the lack of any prosthesis at all—a need felt by amputees in Sierra Leone and elsewhere in the world.

I wanted to serve my country, and I have done that as a Marine. Now, I'm looking toward the service I can offer to people with disabilities in the larger global community. To borrow a thought from the Provost of Duke University, I want to place technology and "knowledge at the service of society".

photo of Jonathan Kuniholm

Jonathan Kuniholm