View Full Version : Artistry comes to aid of maimed soldier

12-08-05, 05:49 AM
Fitting in: Artistry comes to aid of maimed soldier
By Clarence Williams
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Brian Doyne steps up to the Starbucks counter, a cellphone wedged between his ear and left shoulder as he orders a grande mocha. A woman waiting nearby for her coffee sizes him up, from his calm gaze to the designer jeans, back to the sunglasses perched atop his carefully gelled hair.

The stranger's eyes stop for a vanishing moment at the scarred crevices across his face, where bomb fragments left their mark. But she doesn't notice his hand. No one seems to think anything of it.

After all, it's the mirror image of his perfectly unremarkable right hand, with the tiny creases on the fingers and the darker tones of the knuckles. Even on second glance, an onlooker would be hard-pressed to pick Doyne's real hand from the one fashioned from plastic, metal, a computer chip, electrical wiring and a skinlike silicon sleeve, lifelike down to painstakingly painted freckles.

The months of work by skilled artists at Walter Reed Army Medical Center were worth it. Although Doyne has other lower-arm prostheses with greater capacity to grasp or manipulate objects, making them more useful, this hand offers a shining possibility: that for some moments, at least, he will not stand out in public. For the reserved 26-year-old, the highest purpose the hand can serve is to shield him from the prying eyes of strangers.

"It gives us some more normalcy in the way we're perceived," Doyne said of soldiers such as himself who have lost limbs in Iraq. "It's a chance to get away from those questions."

A sense of purpose

It was one of those odd twists of fate that the thing that finally gave Sgt. Brian Doyne a sense of purpose, his calling, was what nearly killed him.

From boyhood, his life seemed destined to be a military one, his parents said, after frequent uprootings as a child of a career infantry officer — Germany, California, Pennsylvania, Kansas. He often played soldier alone. As a teen, he did not fit in, and he became a skinhead, not for the politics but for the camaraderie. He tattooed "hate" on his right bicep, "rage" on his left. He tried college but dropped out after a year and a half.

Seven years ago, he started down the path laid by his father and older brother Sean, now a military police captain deployed in Iraq: He enlisted in the Army, serving in the infantry and then as a recruiter.

In 2002, the bright guy who had grown up pulling apart toys and watches to see what made them work volunteered for bomb-squad training. The mission provided a sense of professionalism and was a perfect fit for someone with an often-morbid sense of humor. Operating robots and pulling wires appealed to the man who liked to use his hands.

"I think what changed him significantly was when he graduated," said his father, retired Col. William Doyne. "It became his life."

Doyne had his sergeant's stripes. He was soon dispatched to Afghanistan. He was shot there — he won't say how — but it didn't shake his confidence. In February, he was sent to Iraq with the 797th Ordnance Company.

Gone in a flash

In 10 days, a bomb changed his life again.

About 9 a.m. Feb. 24, Doyne's unit was dispatched south of Tikrit to investigate an improvised explosive device — IED in Army parlance — that had blown through an M1 Abrams tank. The soldiers started to sweep the area for secondary bombs.

As he went to retrieve his post-blast kit, Doyne's eardrums burst as a 155-mm shell blew him into the sand 30 feet away. His closest friend was killed, and a second soldier was wounded.

"The world just kind of disappeared," Doyne said.

So did his military career.

Doyne's injuries could fill a hospital ward. Both legs shattered below the knee. Right ankle broken. Throat slashed by shrapnel. Fragments embedded in his cheek. Wounds in his thighs and arms. Collapsed left lung. Left eye socket fractured in four places. Optic nerve severed. Two teeth broken, two lost. The tip of his right index finger was blown off.

And his left hand was gone.

At Walter Reed, his first words, uttered in a painkiller-induced fog: "IEDs suck."

An arsenal of limbs

One morning about four months after the blast, Doyne sat in the occupational therapy center, reading a fantasy novel.

He held the book with a prosthetic device that has a clamp, which replaces what was his dominant hand. Called a Grieffer, it is among the four types of hands Walter Reed has given him to perform tasks. Others include the cosmetic hand and a body-powered hand, which straps around his shoulders and torso, allowing him to perform strenuous tasks. Patients receive a spare of each.

Wearing a black baseball cap that declares "IEDs Suck" — military bomb experts from Pennsylvania had it made for him — he held the hand he was born with open on a lamp-lit tabletop. It was serving as a model for what would be his "normal" prosthetic hand. The skinlike hand was being painted by the artists this day.

The hand — an artificial sleeve that fits over a prosthetic — was being created by a team from Alternative Prosthetic Services, founded 16 years ago by Michael Curtin. His Fairfield, Conn., firm is one of about five worldwide that do similar work, Curtin said.

Before 4 a.m. every other Thursday, Curtin and members of his nine-person team load up his 2001 Toyota minivan to meet patients at the hospital by 10 a.m. The artists — including a former Hollywood makeup man — stay for two days at a time. They have produced more than 50 sleeves for soldiers, Marines and airmen treated at the hospital since March 2004.

For Doyne's sleeve, Curtin already had made a wax impression of the right hand. A person's fingers on each hand are virtually identical but have opposite curvature, so the mold is reversed and a silicon mixture poured into it.

Now it was time to make the sleeve come alive. The implements were scattered on the worktable: small paint jars, tiny brushes, X-Acto knives.

Artist Robert Rubino dabbed paint on the bone-white interior of Doyne's sleeve, mixing colors to match skin tones. With each brush stroke, Doyne's replacement hand became more lifelike. Red created the image of blood flow. A certain greenish-blue hue created the illusion of veins.

"The technique of painting inside a glove is something you have to learn on the job," Rubino said. "It's just a tricky process from start to finish."

The artists are so intent on re-creating the look of the original limb that they sometimes shave a patient's arm hair and glue it to the glove. They paint such distinctive marks as childhood scars and replacement tattoos. Doyne declined a surrogate for the one he lost: the Grim Reaper wearing a gas mask and clutching an explosive ordnance-disposal badge.

Soldiers sit as models for four or five hours while the details are brushed in. From start to finish, a single "skin" for a replacement hand will take more than 60 hours of work.

The sleeve is wrapped around the mannequin-style plastic hand, which itself encases a three-pronged "claw," the metallic skeleton. A computer chip in the hand reads the flex impulses from the patient's muscles, allowing the ability to grip, release or maneuver with the prosthetic.

Several weeks later, Doyne sat for the final fitting.

Curtin slid the sleeve over the prosthetic hand. The end of the sleeve abutted a black plastic forearm, and Doyne slipped its socket onto what remains of his left arm, just below the elbow.

Doyne inspected both palms as if he were trying on a new pair of shoes. He flexed his arm and spun the hand 360 degrees at the wrist as Curtin awaited the verdict.

"Well?" the former sculptor asked.

Slowly, shy smirks spread into a broad smile. "It'll hold a beer, I think," he laughed. "You got one?"

A Dr Pepper had to suffice.

Starting over

"I like it," Doyne said. "It's nice to have fingernails again. I can scratch. That's got to be one of the most annoying things, trying to scratch."

"Do I want my eye and arm back? Hell, yeah," he says. "Do I want my best friend back? Most definitely. I could fall to the ground and start kicking and screaming, but that won't change anything."

For months after the explosion, Doyne thought he would stay in the military. But he realized that if he was going to have to do a desk job, he might as well get a higher-paying one. So he is now a civilian inspector of explosive devices at FBI headquarters in Quantico, Va. He wore the "normal" hand at his interview.

After nearly nine months at Walter Reed, he moved in early November to an apartment. He's dating. He wants to keep up his old hobby of working on cars. He hopes to raise money to buy a prosthetic for competition shooting.

He can take care of himself now, but worries about his medical needs in the future. And he knows life will be different for a man with nine hands.

He's used the "normal" maybe once or twice a week, when he goes out to local taverns.

He can drive around town in his new Mitsubishi with it. But when it comes to taking the parking ticket out of the machine in the garage, Doyne is out of luck.

As he had predicted, the hand is good mainly for making other people feel more comfortable. For him, it will never replace what he had.