Bionic Bond Thanks to Ivan Yaeger's
mechanical limbs, an armless girl can reach for the stars
Richard Jerome Don Sider in
Byline: Richard Jerome Don Sider in Miami
May 7, 2001 Vol. 55 No. 18
Publication Date: 05-07-2001
In a moment of sheer
delight, 11-year-old Diamond Excell, eyes gleaming mischievously, gives a grown-up friend's burgundy necktie a gentle yank.
An impish little girl tugging at a strip of fabric--it seems unremarkable. But not to Diamond:She was born without arms or
shoulders. Until now she has deftly performed a range of tasks--eating, writing, sorting laundry--with her feet. But all that
may be changing forever. On March 9 the Miami fifth grader was fitted with a pair of bionic arms, electronically animated
down to the tips of their polyethylene fingers.
"She was excited," says her mother, Delia, 27, a
nurse. "She went home and told everybody, 'My arms are ready! I tried them on!'"
In large part Diamond owes her transformation
to the man at the other end of that necktie: Ivan Yaeger, 33, the Miami inventor and entrepreneur who codesigned the custom-built
limbs--the first practical use of a device he conceived 22 years ago as a seventh-grade science project. The arms are a complex
of batteries, sensors, wires and microprocessors covered by a spandex skin. Electrodes placed at key points on Diamond's torso
pick up nerve signals generated by muscles and translate those impulses into movement.
"A person will move the arm
based on what muscle they're
flexing," explains Yaeger, who--along with prosthetics maker
Eugenio R. Silva, 38--spent
six months and thousands of unpaid hours creating the limbs. "There were so many little details. To be able to have a controlled
system where she can operate the hand, wrist and elbow--that was a challenge."
With training, Diamond should be able
to manipulate light objects with her new limbs, which are much like other high-priced prosthetics but tailored to her specific
body and needs. The question is whether she'll be able to perform tasks with the arms as well as she can without them. "It's
hard to say," notes Dudley Childress, 66, a professor of biomedical education at Northwestern University who has worked with
prosthetics for 35 years. "Someone has become very adept with her feet, and here she has limbs that are reasonably slow to
manipulate objects. It's not a lock."
But at the very least Diamond's arms should serve her well in
a restaurant, say, where eating with her
feet might attract unwanted attention. And of course they will
enable her to
give someone a hug, like the one she gave Yaeger at a March 14 press conference. "I had a lump in my throat," he says. "It
was the culmination of so much effort and so much time."
In a way, he has been working on this project most of his
Born in Miami to Carl, 78, a chiropractic and naturopathic
physician, and his wife, Ollie, 70, a retired school
counselor, "Ivan was very inquisitive, innovative and
intellectual," according to his mother. "He spent tremendous
time reading from his encyclopedia and building model cars. Sometimes he'd crash the cars and go right back and rebuild them."
was also a big fan of The Six Million Dollar Man, the '70s TV
show starring Lee Majors as a bionically repaired test pilot.
for his seventh-grade science project, he decided to build a
bionic arm himself. "I wanted to know, Were they real?
Could they really make someone a superhero?" he says. After devouring texts on prosthetics and robotics, he went to work using
Erector set parts, motors from radio-controlled cars and sundry items from hobby shops. "It took me about six months," says
Yaeger, who won third prize and resolved to refine his invention. "When I was a senior at Miami Central High School, I had
this new design. Thefirst had an electric elbow and hand. The final one had a rotating wrist. It really was a unique feature."
patented the device in 1985 when he was just 18 and then went on to the University of Miami, where he earned a bachelor's
degree in business administration. Backed by his parents, he started Yaeger Innovative Products Corp. in college, sketching
his inventions in a notebook. Most successful was the DeskMaster, a portable bookstand that attaches to a desk and allows
students to take notes while keeping their books open. Yaeger sold it through the mail and at college bookstores. His corporation,
which employs seven people, has since developed such products as the CassetteLok, which protects valuable or confidential
cassettecontents from being viewed or destroyed, and a torso support for heavy-equipment operators. Yaeger also started a
non-profit foundation through which he travels to schools and other venues to deliver motivational speeches about the process
of invention. His message: "Don't be afraid to dream."
Yaeger, who is single, was a guest at a Miami-area Rotary Club
in February of last year when he first heard a plea to
assist an armless local girl, Diamond Excell. He declared that he
just might be able to help. What followed was a yearlong campaign for contributions to raise the $70,000 needed to build Diamond's
bionic arms. Donors included the Rotarians, Yaeger's company and private citizens--among them seniors on fixed incomes and
children who sent allowance money.
When Yaeger met Diamond, he was overwhelmed. "She had skills in writing, drawing
and manipulating objects that a child who has arms and hands has," he says. "And her spirit was so strong." Diamond's defects
almost surely resulted from medication her mother took for excessive menstrual bleeding at the age of 16."They prescribed
Provera, five pills--I took one every day," says Delia. Her bleeding stopped, but a follow-up exam revealed she was in the
early stages of pregnancy. Though the drug typically brings on spontaneous abortion in such cases, Diamond survived. But her
development was profoundly altered. After her birth,Delia says, "I wondered what I had done wrong in my life. I didn't speak
to anybody for a year."
Delia and her husband, Derrick, later had a second, healthy, baby girl together, Daysha, now
6, whom Diamond used to burp by patting a foot on her back. Among her other skills, Diamond knows her way around the kitchen.
"She cooks eggs for me, and grits," says Derrick, 30, a supermarket worker who is studying to be a plasterer. Enrolled in
the gifted program at Myrtle Grove Elementary School, Diamond writes with her left foot and has been on the honor roll since
first grade. She also takes karate and recently won first place in the handicapped division in the U.S. Open at Walt Disney
World. But adroit as she is with her feet, Diamond could hardly wait to get her prosthesis. "When she first put it on, it
was like a child in a nursery," says Eugenio Silva."Have you ever seen newborns start to explore their body?Suddenly the arm
twitched; she looked down at her hand and it was
Yaeger and Silva, delighted with the impact they have
had on one courageous little girl's world and determined to have even more, plan to keep on improving their creation. "To
be in the center of a project like that," Yaeger says, "is something I'll carry with me the rest of my life."
--Don Sider in Miami