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Claire’s Left Hand

By James S. Offenhartz

Where to find a bioengineer, that’s the $64 question. June was about to turn 14 and she didn’t have a left hand. She never had a left hand except prenatally. I, her mother, told June my umbilical chord wrapped around her left hand and cut it off, but June didn’t believe me. She told me that maybe a secret abuser came in the middle of the night to try to abduct June and I grabbed June’s hand to try to stop the kidnapper and June’s hand had come off because I loved her so much. I showed her the hospital report multiple times but June still didn’t believe me. She said nobody else’s mom’s umbilical chords amputated other baby’s hands, so why June’s? I don’t know why either. Oh, well. Where to find a bioengineer? I tried to phone book, but nothing’s in there under engineer or bioengineer.

So, June’s birthday is in 3 weeks and I secretly went to the University of Michigan’s Engineering Department after finding it under schools in the yellow pages. I walked in and met the secretary: a young female student probably working this job to pay for her tuition.

I must have looked awkward. A forty-five year old woman who knows nothing about engineering coming to ask about a left hand.

“Hello,” the secretary said, with a fake smile, “Can I help you?”

“Hi,” I said. “My daughter needs a hand.”

The young woman smiled politely and there was an awkward pause.

Then the secretary asks, “Your daughter need a hand with what? Is she a student? We have people who could tutor her.”

“No,” I said. “No, my daughter needs a hand. When she was born, my umbilical chord amputated her left hand and she doesn’t have a hand. I need someone who can make her a hand so she can throw, get things out of her pocket, you know. What other people normally do without thinking. My daughter wants a hand and her birthday is in three weeks and I don’t know how to find a fake hand, but maybe someone here does.”

There was another awkward pause. Then the secretary slowly said, “You probably want to talk to one of the Professors of Bioengineering. Let me pull up their office hours for you.”

She did that. The secretary also told me where each of the buildings were and where their offices were.

I thought about it though. Maybe I’m wrong about why Clara wants a left hand. Maybe she’ll be like the young men who say they want a SAGA or NES since all of their friends have it and then they get it, play with it for two weeks, and it (the NES or SAGA) wind up sitting in their closet collecting dust for the rest of their lives. Also, I don’t know how much a hand is going to cost. I’m just a maid and it might cost too much. I love Claire. I just hope we’re not making a mistake by getting this. Also, Clara think that she can just put on the fake hand and it’ll look and work like other people’s hands and I don’t know if she’s right about that. I’ll have to ask the bioengineers about that too. Then, I’ll be back to the yellow pages looking up fake hand personal trainer, which probably won’t be there either. Sometimes I wish Clara could have just asked me for jewelry, a game, a movie, or something easy. Not a hand, not a real looking, real working hand, but that’s what she wants and it is her birthday.

The head of bioengineering’s office hours were 5 am to 6 am and I’m a night owl so I had to take a sleeping pill at 8 pm. Who sleeps at 8 pm? Crazy people. But I saw Claire happily reading a book on her bed. Looks like “The Chocolate War” again. I just hope this hand is going to be worth it. I have a few days off from work and I don’t want to waste it if it won’t even work. I change into my nightgown and wait for the meds to kick in, which they do in fifteen minutes.

The next morning at 4 am the alarm goes off. I do the normal stuff: eat, brush my teeth, shower, etc. I know where the college is since I’d been there to apply for becoming a teacher, but I didn’t have enough money for the tuition. But I go there and, after asking the secretary again, find his office; a wooden door with the numbers 452. I quietly knock on the door. A low, male voice says,

“Come in”.

I enter and see a middle-aged, white man with a receding hair line and white hair. He’s wearing a two-piece pressed business suit and looks professional.

“How can I help you?”

I feel scared. What if I say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing and screw this all up? He could kick me out of his office and . . . No. I can do this.

“Hi. How are you? My daughter, Claire, was born with no left hand. Or, I mean, she had a left hand but my umbilical chord cut it off and her birthday is in three weeks.”

The professor’s eyes look puzzled.

“See, she wants an artificial left hand for her birthday and I don’t know where I can buy a hand that’ll look and work like other kids’ hands, but maybe you do. Where do I go to get my daughter an artificial left hand?”

The professor slowly smiles and speaks slowly as though this wasn’t the first frantic mother who’s come into his office.

“Yes, I can help you with that, but it will have to start it January.

Today is November 2nd. See, we do a lot of things at the University of Missouri’s Bioengineering department including artificial limbs. So, let me start by saying I’m sorry your daughter has this condition. I also want to warn you that after the students complete this project, your daughter, what is her name please?”

“Claire,” I answered.

“Claire will still have phantom pain. She’ll always have phantom pain. No matter what we do here, she will have phantom pain and I need you and Claire to understand that. I will also need to talk to Claire about what specifically she wants her hand for and take measurements. This will take a semester, at least, and these are students and corrections, more than likely, will need to be made. Also, how old is your daughter or, I’m sorry. How old will your daughter be in three weeks?”

I smiled widely. There is a possibility Claire can get a left hand.

“She’s turning 14”

Then he sighs.

“In all due respect, I’d like one of the female teachers to ask her if there are any personal things she’s trying to do with the artificial hand and what else specifically she’s wants the hand for. This won’t be a one day process. When the left hand is completed, she’ll need a lot of PT to learn how to use the hand. Do you understand that?

“Potty training? But . . .”

The professor sighs and says, “Physical Therapy. Also, she may not like the hand at first and it will get time to get used to. It will be expensive too, but if you allow our students to make it, it will be a lot cheaper.”

I do worry about the cost.

“Can insurance cover any of it?”

“Some of it,” he says, “but first I want Claire to talk to Professor Bob, since she’s a woman”.

He gives me Professor Bob’s telephone number, office number, and office hours. I wonder if Claire is even going to want this when she realizes how much work it’s going to take on both of our parts. I still don’t know what this is going to cost. I hope Claire will be excited. I just hope we’ll both have the patience to stick through it.

I drive home and notice all the other drivers just casually going about their day, maybe driving to work since it isn’t even 8 am and just taking all their body parts for granted. They all have arms, hands, legs, feet, and toes.

I get home and Claire is eating breakfast: Multi-Grain Cheerios, milk, and a banana. We all think she’s right-handed. Claire looks at me oddly and says hi to me. I can see from the look in her eyes that she’s wondering where I’ve been. I want her to enjoy her day at school so I just say good morning and wait till she comes home from school to tell her the good news and bad news.


That night Claire came home from school and we talk. I tell her to sit down on the couch.

“Claire,” I say, “I looked for what you wanted for your birthday”.

Claire’s face lites up and she can barely stop herself from jumping off the couch”

“Did you find it, Mommy? Did you find a left hand?”

I could see the joy and the truth in Claire’s eyes. The eyes never lie. The face does, but not the eyes.

“Yes, dear I did, but . . .”

Claire gets up and quickly puts her little arms around my neck to hug me.

“Thank you, Mommy! Thank you!” Claire says.

“But there’s more to it than that and you need to understand it won’t just pop on like a doll and be a hand. You’re not a doll. It’s going to take a lot of work for both of us. I talked to a professor at the University of Missouri and he said it’s going to take at least six months just to have students, college students, make a hand, which may not even work the first time. You’ll also need to talk to someone named Bob about what you want to do with this left hand. Honey, it’s probably going to take at least two years for you to get used to this hand and you may not even ever get used to it. Is this something you’re sure you really want?”

Claire smiled the way children do when they’re given candy or a toy for their birthday.

“Yes, Mommy. This is what I want with all my heart”.

And that was the beginning of a long journey.

August 05, 2019 02:38

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1 comment

Philip Clayberg
22:41 Sep 16, 2020

I liked the story. I just wish it could've been longer. Maybe you could write a sequel, describing what it was like to make, attach, and learn to use Claire's new artificial hand.


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