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The Bertha Bionic Woman

Nicole Johnson is fitted for her prosthetic at Advanced Arm Dynamics in Minneapolis. Johnson, who resides in Bertha, has been recovering from a workplace accident last year which resulted in her hand being amputated.

On May 14, it will be exactly one year since Nicole Johnson lost her left hand in a machine malfunction. Three things have helped her bounce back since then: the loving support of her family, a relentlessly positive attitude – and technology that looks straight out of a Star Wars movie.

The accident took place when Johnson was operating an industrial sewing machine at the Homecrest factory. She said the whole thing took less than a minute to happen.

“I knew right away that my hand was gone,” she said.

Despite the horrifying circumstances, Johnson remained strong. The medevac helicopter flight from Wadena to the Twin Cities was the first time she had ever flown before, and she remembers joking about it even as she was being wheeled into North Memorial hospital.

“I was like, ‘Well, at least I finally got to fly… it was on my bucket list!’” she said.

After she was stabilized and recovering in the hospital, Johnson was anxious to return home and be with her children. No go, her doctors told her –she was scheduled for multiple surgeries and wouldn’t be out until at least another week.

Johnson would have none of it.

“I said, ‘I’m going home in five days,’” she recalled.

As it turned out, her midweek surgery went so well that doctors were able to close up her wound early. The next day, she was up and exploring the hospital, to the point where her nurses set time limits for her to wander around so they could keep better track of where she was. By Friday, she was home with her family, just as she had predicted.

Johnson said a conscious effort to stay positive was essential in her recovery.

“It very easily could have went the other way,” she said. “The healing process would have been a lot slower had I went that way instead of being so positive about it all.”

Since getting out of the hospital and acquiring a prosthetic hand, Johnson has been working constantly to regain functionality in her arm although she battles daily pain there. At this point, there’s only a very short list of things she lacks the ability to do with her amputated limb. She does several rounds of physical and occupational therapy a week at Tri County Health Care’s new Rehabiliation Center. She is active in several amputee advocacy groups, and is even working on a children’s book that helps explain living with an amputation.

Johnson’s own three children and her husband have been helping her remake her life. At first, seeing her children’s toys triggered an emotional response from Johnson, because she thought she might never again use them to play along. She needn’t have worried, though, because her kids didn’t miss a beat in reconfiguring their games to include her. Her middle child walked her through a host of creative tricks he had devised just so she could play basketball with the prosthetic. When the children play pretend, it becomes a tow truck arm or Captain Hook’s claw.

“They were so inspiring,” Johnson said. “My kids have never given up on me.”      

She said the support from her community in Bertha has also been a huge help for her. She recalled a time this past winter when she was attempting to shovel snow with one hand, and some neighbors spotted her.

“The next thing you know, somebody was walking down the block with their snow blower to help,” Johnson said.

Johnson was fitted for a myoelectric prosthetic hand in late February, and it’s state of the art. For example, the hand is battery operated, but the batteries are better described as malleable power cells because they conform completely to each contour of Johnson’s arm in the narrow space underneath the prosthetic casing. The hand itself is controlled by the pressure created when Johnson flexes certain muscles in her arm. Johnson can literally plug her hand into a computer and program it to go into a different grip pattern based on the number of times she flexes her muscles. One flex could mean one finger bends, two flexes, two fingers.

She also has a number of “activity-specific” prosthetics, everything from mechanisms designed for playing basketball to a gun turret she can use to balance the front end of a rifle while hunting. The color she’s picked out for that particular attachment says something about her personality and the bright attitude she’s taken towards her recovery.

“That one’s going to be pink camouflage when it’s done,” she said.