Walking taller with new arms Dreams being fulfilled: At age 21, Beatriz Lopez-Perez is learning how to use arms. Her fellow Spaniard, Diego Femia-Godoy, is awaiting completion of his mechanical limbs.

November 05, 1995|By Douglas Birch and James Bock | Douglas Birch and James Bock,SUN STAFF

For Beatriz Lopez-Perez, who was born without arms, her new mechanical limbs are a testament to her faith.

After almost two years of fittings and exhausting physical therapy at Johns Hopkins Hospital, the thalidomide victim, a native of Spain's Canary Islands, finally has received her prosthesis.

In the meantime, she learned to speak English. She taught herself to live independently. She shrugged off the stares and buried her resentment at slights. And she labored to help a young man from Spain, a double-amputee, come to Hopkins for a new pair of arms of his own.

Ms. Lopez-Perez confided, in a July 2 article in The Sun, that she long had dreamed of having arms, so she could wear her collection of rings, watches and bracelets and hug a child. Now she has her limbs, made of metal and plastic crafted to resemble flesh and blood.

She wore them for the first time in public on the Sunday she marched in the parade behind Pope John Paul II, after he celebrated Mass in Camden Yards. The pope blessed hundreds of thousands of Catholics and others. But for Ms. Lopez-Perez, the public celebration Oct. 8 had deep personal significance.

"For me, the blessing was for my arms," said Ms. Lopez-Perez, who celebrates her 21st birthday today.

Now, to learn how to use these unfamiliar limbs, she will stare at other people eating in restaurants. "I tell them, 'No, no! Don't worry! I'm just copying you.' "

A friend is teaching her to dress herself. She can now manipulate her mechanical hands deftly enough to fasten her buttons.

These are not small accomplishments for someone who has never had arms or hands or fingers.

"I can just be happy, because I can have rings," she says. "I can have bracelets. I can help people."

Ms. Lopez-Perez came to this country in December 1993, after she raised money for the trip and the prosthesis from her provincial government and through donations from other residents of the Canary Islands.

Living on her own in Baltimore, the strong-willed young woman spent 22 months working with doctors at Hopkins, a physical therapist and Charles Dankmeyer, the owner of a Linthicum-based prosthetics firm.

The result was her handmade mechanical arms, held to her shoulders with a harness, driven by motors, controlled by advanced electronics and covered with a plastic resembling skin.

The day of the pope's visit proved to be a challenge. The prosthesis makes her feel top-heavy, adding about 10 pounds to her diminutive frame. She lost her balance and fell twice on Metro escalators.

Each time, her arms blocked her fall and she wasn't seriously injured. Each time, she was able to struggle back to her feet by herself. "The arms, they helped me to jump up," she says.

To carry the weight, she has had to relearn how to walk.

In other ways, Ms. Lopez-Perez hasn't yet fully adapted. She can't pick things up off the floor. She still gestures with her feet, not her new hands, when she talks.

Originally, she was supposed to get her arms in early July. But the device needed adjustment: She was having trouble with controls that lock and unlock the elbows.

At the same time, Diego Femia-Godoy arrived. The 25-year-old, who comes from a rural village southwest of Madrid, first contacted Ms. Lopez-Perez in early 1994 after seeing her on television.

Mr. Femia-Godoy lost both arms above the elbows as a child, while playing on power lines. The son of a retired railroad worker, he is a recent graduate of the University of Salamanca.

Ms. Lopez-Perez and a friend, Brenda Almenas, a student at the College of Notre Dame, lobbied social service agencies in Mr. Femia-Godoy's region, Extremadura, throughout the summer of 1994.

Regional authorities at first resisted, but finally agreed to cover up to $95,000 of his expenses. Mr. Dankmeyer is building two sets of arms for him, at a cost of $85,000.

Mr. Femia-Godoy is eager to get the devices, which will have lifelike hands and not the bare steel pincers he has now.

Doctors often warn amputees not to expect their lives to be changed by a new limb.

He disagrees. "Your life does change," he says. "You're more comfortable. You can do things more quickly. It fits you better. It feels better. They're hands, not hooks."

Over the past four months, Ms. Lopez-Perez has helped Mr. Femia-Godoy, whose family had previously helped him do most things, learn to do almost everything for himself.

"In the beginning, it was very hard," he says.

Taking responsibility for Mr. Femia-Godoy put Ms. Lopez-Perez under pressure. At the same time, the 100-pound woman was enduring therapy sessions designed to build up the strength of shoulder muscles that she had seldom, or never, used.

"I was worried," she said. "I was very worried." The strain caused her to lose almost seven pounds.

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