After car crash injury, Mineola teacher fitted with robotic hand

Suzanne Vitale is learning to use her artificial hand called an i-limb after her hand was amputated following a car accident days after superstorm Sandy. Videojournalist: Jim Staubitser (April 26, 2013) 

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Suzanne Vitale sometimes feels as if her hand is still there -- a phantom appendage that could still pitch a baseball, row a canoe or send a soccer ball soaring.

But the Mineola physical education teacher is still recovering from an amputation following a horrific traffic accident that has sidelined her since October.

A sports enthusiast, Vitale once used her left hand easily -- gracefully -- to grip golf clubs and strike players out at home plate. Now she's learning to use a manufactured robotic appendage to pick up a cup and pet her dog, Lily.

But Vitale's story isn't simply about a woman learning to use technology in the midst of loss. She believes the amputation serves a larger purpose, perhaps helping others who face physical challenges.

"I believe major things happen in life for a reason," Vitale said. "I think I am supposed to do something more, to help people, maybe when I retire -- but I don't know when I'll retire."

The accident happened in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy. "I was on my way to my uncle's house," said Vitale, who is on leave from Mineola's Jackson Avenue Elementary School. "It was about 9:30 in the morning. The power was out here -- it had been out for several days. So Lily and I got in the car and we weren't even that far from home."

There were no traffic signals.

And that's when her car was struck from behind by another vehicle. The collision caused her car to flip over on the driver's side, become momentarily airborne and skid.

"It slid for about 15 feet. I don't know what caused it to slide. I can tell this story 5,000 times and never get sick of it," Vitale said.

Her left hand, exposed through the window, was dragged along with the car, shearing off her thumb, mangling her hand's musculature, and leaving her pinkie finger dangling from a shred of skin.

"I didn't pass out; I wanted to pass out. It felt like the entire weight of the car was on my hand."

Witnesses quickly gathered and rescued Lily while Vitale was rushed to Winthrop-University Hospital. Doctors posited theories on hand restoration but acknowledged her appendage would never be the same. Her eager medical team, Vitale said, was ready to save what they could. She underwent nine surgeries in five weeks.

"But I kept thinking in 30 years when I am 77, I don't want to be all arthritic and disabled because of this hand. And I said to them, by that time in my life all of you will be retired. What will I do then?"

That's when doctors suggested, and Vitale said she chose, amputation. Prosthetist Dan Bastian, himself an amputee, visited her in the hospital and discussed her choices. He outfitted Vitale with a high-tech iLimb, a robotic hand with fingers capable of gripping, typing or lifting a coffee cup.

"She is very upbeat about it," said Bastian, co-owner of Progressive Orthotics and Prosthetics in Albertson. He said he's making her special hands for golf and other sports. "I am kind of like a giant Swiss Army knife now," she said jokingly.

Her greatest joy was paying a recent visit to her third-graders, whom she will teach again in June. They had flooded her with get-well letters.

"They asked me if I could crush a brick. One kid asked me if I hit a wall would it break. So I took it off," she said. "And we did show and tell."

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