In 1972  Martin Caidin conceived Steve Austin in a book named Cyborg, which would become the basis for the 1970s TV series, The Six Million Dollar Man. In the TV series, fictional Steve Austin is test pilot who loses both legs, an arm and an eye when a malfunction causes his airplane to crash. Austin seeks the assistance of his best friend Dr. Rudy Wells, a surgeon and  specialist in  the then emerging field of bionics—funded by the US government to reduce casualties of American soldiers and operatives.  The Six Million Dollar Man opens.. with a male voice over… “We have the technology; we can bake him better…

Test pilot Austin—as the story goes– would become the world’s human “bionics” guinea pig. Steve’s arm, legs and eye are replaced with sophisticated “bionic” prosthetic devices. The result? Superman light—part human / part machine. The operation to rebuild him costs $6 million.

Fast forward to 2008. Former baker and then cancer patient Johnny Matheny loses his arm to the disease. Matheny reasons that, in the post Iraq and Afghanistan era prosthetics technology must have advanced to near “Steve Austin” levels, right?

It seemed so at first. Matheny was an ideal patient. During the arm amputation operation to remove his arm Johnny’s nerve endings were left intact until a technologically appropriate arm was created.

Enter trauma surgeon Albert Chi. Chi an expert in “targeted muscle innervation”.  Targeted muscle innervation is a procedure whereby nerves are rerouted through spare muscle so amputees are able to operate motorized prosthetics via motor commands. But Matheny’s nerves and muscles could no longer communicate with or respond to motor commands. So, through physical therapy, Matheny retrained muscles and nerves.

Eventually, tests confirmed dramatic surgical success. Sensation, feeling and movement resumed faster than anyone anticipated.“The body is amazing in terms of its will to return to normal function,” Chi says. “When you have a missing limb, all the information is there, but the body has no way to get it out. So we rerouted the pathway for that information so that it can be expressed.” The body was ready for an appropriate prosthetic.  Did it exist?

Almost. Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics was then putting the final touches on a five-fingered hand that operates much as a human hand does. Matheny tested a prototype arm earlier at Johns Hopkins. In May 2013 Matheny was fitted with his own “bionic” prosthetic arm.

Now, Matheny is ecstatic! “I knew medicine was advancing at a fast pace,” he says, “but I had no clue that anything like this was available. After the surgery, I started feeling all of these different sensations. It was crazy, but a good crazy.” We have the technology. We made him better.” Steve Austin is now.

Editor’s note:

This piece is written in recognition of the Portland law firm Kafoury & McDougal who last Friday earned a six million dollar verdict a paraplegic client of that firm. Congratulations, Greg, Mark and Jason.