Ex-soldier becomes first to get £10,000 bionic arm on the NHS

Ex-soldier father, 43, whose arm was blown off by a mortar in Afghanistan 12 years ago becomes the first person to get a pioneering £10,000 bionic hand on the NHS

  • Darren Fuller, from Colchester in Essex, got the arm through a veterans scheme 
  • It works by detecting electrical signals in the muscles in his upper arm
  • He lost his right hand and forearm when a mortar misfired and hit him
  • After a traumatic recovery, Mr Fuller said he now has a ‘new lease of life’

An ex-soldier whose right arm was blown off in Afghanistan in 2008 has become the first former serviceman to get a £10,000 bionic arm on the NHS.

Darren Fuller, a 43-year-old father of two from Colchester, Essex, says he is amazed by the range of things he can do now that he was missing out on.

Now able to hug and play with his four-year-old daughter, Sky, and eat with a knife and fork for the first time in years, Mr Fuller said the arm has given him a new lease of life. 

He was left mutilated and traumatised after a mortar misfire in the Helmand Province blasted his right hand and forearm clean off. 

But after more than a decade, Mr Fuller has got his life back on track and now says it’s an ‘exciting time’ as he gets to grips with his bionic limb.

The NHS Veterans’ Prosthetics Panel provided the funding for the ex-serviceman to have the arm fitted, making him the first to receive the hi-tech prosthetic.

Darren Fuller, pictured with his daughter, Sky, has had the £10,000 bionic arm fitted and says he can now play with his daughter properly for the first time

Mr Fuller’s prosthetic arm works by sensors inside the end of it picking up sensors from muscles in what remains of his upper arm

Mr Fuller, pictured in 1996, had his hand and forearm blown off in a friendly fire accident in Afghanistan in 2008

‘I can now do so many of the little things that most people take for granted,’ Mr Fuller said. ‘I’m so happy.

‘I can hug my daughter and play games with her in a way I have never been able to before, it’s amazing.

‘There are so many things I’m doing two handed compared to before, and so many things I’m still discovering. It’s a really exciting time.’

He admitted recovering from his brush with death was ‘immensely difficult’ but that the ‘incredible’ arm has motivated him. 

The prosthetic, which Bristol-based firm Open Bionics market as the ‘Hero Arm’, is made using a state-of-the-art 3D printer and gives amputees unparalleled use of the fingers, the company says.  

The bionic arm works by picking up signals from muscles in the user’s residual limb.

When Mr Fuller flexes his muscles, special sensors detect naturally generated electric signals and convert these into intuitive and proportional hand movements.

Since receiving his arm, Mr Fuller has been able to hold his daughter’s hand with his right hand for the first time ever and use a knife and fork.

He can play games with her and paint, bake and do arts and crafts better than he ever could – she was born eight years after he lost his hand. 

Mr Fuller, who lives with Sky and his wife, enlisted into the Parachute Regiment in 1994.

He completed tours in Northern Ireland, Macedonia and Iraq before his fateful final outing in Afghanistan in 2008, when his right hand and forearm were blown clean off.

The section commander was operating army weaponry to provide support for troops patrolling nearby when an explosive shell, or mortar bomb, went off and struck him.

Mr Fuller said: ‘I ducked as the mortar went off and then looked down to see half my arm was missing, there was blood everywhere.

‘I wasn’t in a huge amount of pain, I was just thinking, ‘will I see my girlfriend and son ever again, will I survive?’

‘It was such a surreal moment because even though you’re a serviceman you think losing a limb isn’t the kind of thing that will ever happen to you.’

Mr Fuller is pictured after his promotion to sergeant in 2007, just a year before he lost his arm

Mr Fuller was in the military for 20 years after enlisting in 1994. He continued to serve after losing his arm and received a medical discharge in 2014

Mr Fuller said the new arm means he can paint and do arts crafts with his daughter, Sky (pictured)

Mr Fuller said: ‘I can hug my daughter and play games with her in a way I have never been able to before, it’s amazing’

The father-of-two said he thought he was going to die when the mortar went off, adding that there was ‘blood everywhere’ but he wasn’t in a lot of pain

The prosthetic works by sensing electrical signals in the working muscles in Mr Fullers upper arm and translating them into the correct movements in the hand. This hi-tech approach allows him to use individual fingers

HOW DOES THE ‘HERO ARM’ WORK? 

Open Bionics designs and manufactures the prosthetic limb, which uses an actuator, designed by Maxon.

An actuator is a mechanical device that can turn energy into movement. It helps wearers move each finger individually. 

The muscles in the muscles in an amputee’s stump still generate electrical signals when they contract, which the Hero Arm can detect using electrodes.

When these signals are received the prosthetic translates them into the movements the brain intended for the hand to do, and moves the prosthetic accordingly.

Will Mason, the managing director at Maxon, said: ‘The bionic hand is controlled by tensing the same muscles which are used to open and close a biological hand.

‘When a user puts on their bionic arm and flexes muscles in their residual limb just below their elbow; special sensors detect tiny naturally generated electric signals, and convert these into intuitive and proportional bionic hand movement.’  

Each Hero Arm is custom-built using 3D printing and 3D scanning technologies, so that it fits the user perfectly.

It has six grip types, such as fist, hook, pinch and tripod, to allow for versatility. It is battery powered. 

A spokesperson for Open Bionics said the Hero Arm, which costs £10,000, is ‘vastly cheaper’ than alternatives that cost between £20,000 and £60,000 for one hand.

Mr Fuller thought he was ‘going to die’ in the immediate aftermath of the incident and then, as the months wore on, he went through a period of denial over what happened.

He said: ‘I had a range of different emotions as time wore on but eventually I accepted the situation I found myself in and moved on.

‘It wasn’t easy because I was right-handed, so I had to learn how to do everything all over again with my left, which was a huge challenge.’

Over the past decade Mr Fuller has tried a number of prosthetics but found none of them worked exactly how he wanted, until he got the bionic Hero Arm this year.

He said: ‘The functionality is absolutely amazing, I can make the smallest movements with it.

‘I’ve tried all sorts of prosthetics over the years and the Bionic Arm is by far and away the best of the lot – it’s absolutely brilliant.

‘I really believe it’s going to improve my life massively.’ 

The former serviceman, who was medically discharged in 2014, received funding for his Hero Arm through the NHS Veterans’ Prosthetics Panel, which is a pathway for veterans who have lost a limb while serving.

The prosthetic can be purchased by civilians in the UK for around £10,000.

Mr Fuller was also supported by Blesma, a limbless veterans’ charity which he currently works for as an outreach officer.

He said: ‘Hopefully I’m the first veteran of many to receive a Hero Arm.

‘There are many others like me who could really benefit from such an amazing prosthetic.’

The NHS Veterans Prosthetics Panel was set up in 2012 and funnels millions of pounds of government money into rehabilitation for injured service personnel. 

NHS facilities around the country received a share of £11million over two years to provide prosthetics for men and women who have lost their limbs in the military. 

The panel was set up following recommendations made by Dr Andrew Murrison, MP for South West Wiltshire and former Minister for International Security Strategy. 

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