An interview with Michel Fornasier, alias Bionicman
You were born without a right hand. What was it like growing up?
My younger, two-handed brother and I were brought up in a very sheltered environment. My parents raised us as equals – with the same levels of strictness and affection. I never received special treatment just because I didn't have a right hand. And I think that’s also very important. It’s important that people with disabilities should not be treated differently, as we're all members of the same social community.
When did you get your first prosthesis?
I got my first prosthetic hand at the age of seven. It was a purely cosmetic prosthesis, with no functionality, i.e. a kind of add-on hand. It was flesh-coloured, but still wasn’t a human hand. I never accepted this prosthesis.
How do people react to your missing hand or your prosthetic hand?
In the past, people tended to feel a certain pity. They most likely thought: «Oh, the poor boy, the poor man. He probably can't even do up his jacket zip by himself or needs help tying his shoelaces.»
Their attitude is positive and they come up to me and ask: «How does that thing work?» People are excited by the technology.
You’ve been wearing a bionic hand prosthesis for a few years now. What exactly does it do?
This bionic hand prosthesis is currently the ultimate in modern prosthetics. The artificial hand has six independent motors as well as a chrome-plated carbon shaft. It can do much more than just a simple grasping movement. Using an app on my smartphone, I can select from 25 different grasping options and programme my prosthetic hand to suit my individual needs. There’s a pincer grip option, for example, which is great for eating popcorn in the cinema. I can also control my prosthesis using microchips attached to my bicycle, for example. The chips are programmed with a specific grip. When my hand approaches, the chips communicate via Bluetooth to produce the grip that I need to hold the handlebar.
How do you physically steer this hand?
My right forearm is fully functioning. I can also move my wrist up and down to activate the flexor and extensor muscles in my forearm. Two electrodes are embedded in the arm shaft of this prosthetic hand, one on top and one below. These two electrodes serve as contact points. If I bend my wrist upwards, the upper muscle touches the upper electrode and prompts the hand to open. If I bend my wrist downwards, the lower muscle touches the lower electrode and prompts the hand to close. Thanks to the different grip options and muscle contractions set in the smartphone app, I can perform different kinds of grips and even move individual fingers.
That sounds complicated and needs a lot of training?
Yes, I remember how, at the beginning, I used to practise throwing a ball. It needed a lot of time until the ball eventually flew in the right direction.
Think about what is required just to start the morning: our legs walk from the bedroom to the kitchen, our hands pick up the muesli and the spoon. This needs fine motor skills, muscle impulses, nerves and much more. In all the euphoria around artificial intelligence, medtech and robotics, we should never forget the human being. The human body is unique and utterly miraculous. In addition, the months of training needed until my prosthetic hand could execute only rudimentary grips made me appreciate having a human left hand.
Are there things you prefer to do without a prosthesis?
Yes, there are a number of things that I can do better without a prosthesis. After all, I’ve lived many years without. Tying my shoelaces, for example, is something that I still do much more easily today without a prosthesis.
Which other functions do you wish for?
My bionic hand prosthesis provides approx. 15 percent of the mobility of a human hand. Of course you can say that 15 percent is better than nothing. But there's still plenty of room for improvement. Speed, for example, is one subject. It would be useful if the prosthetic fingers could move more quickly. And its weight could also be optimised. At 2.8 kg, it’s rather heavy. If I wear the prosthesis for eight to nine hours a day, in the evening I feel muscles that I had never noticed before.
You're not only Michel Fornasier who wears a state-of-the-art hand prosthesis. You're also Bionicman, the superhero. Where does that come from?
Bionicman is a comic superhero with a bionic hand prosthesis and the figurehead of «Give Children a Hand», a charitable foundation that provides physically disabled children with access to innovative hand prostheses.
How did that come about?
Children were the inspiration for Bionicman. They were always asking me: «Does your prosthetic hand give you superpowers?» At first, I used to say no. And then they were always so disappointed and were no doubt thinking: «Hey, he's got such a cool hand but doesn’t even have superpowers. That’s boring.» At some point, I started to answer: «Yes, well, about these superpowers ...» and then the children were euphoric and ran to their parents, saying: «When I’m older, I want a magic hand like that.»
And so David Boller, a good friend of mine, and I decided to create a superhero with a handicap. David Boller had worked for 25 years in the USA for the prestigious comic publishers Marvel and DC Comics, drawing figures like Wonder Woman, Superman and Batman. Usually, it’s a special talent that makes someone a superhero, but in Bionicman’s case, it’s a handicap, a missing hand. And this is the key to Bionicman’s superpower: transforming so-called weaknesses into strengths.
And what’s the «Give Children a Hand» foundation all about?
When I got my first prosthetic hand from my orthopaedic surgeon at the age of seven, the experience was horrifying. There were plastic legs and hands lying around all over the place. I was scared – and the whole thing gave me such a negative attitude to prostheses. Today we use modern 3D printers to produce prosthetic hands for children that resemble colourful toys. The children are involved in the process, and can design their «magic hand» themselves. Recently a boy asked for a Hulk-green prosthesis. So we printed all the parts of the hand in the requested colour and integrated some elements that lit up in the dark. When Bionicman presented him with the prosthesis, the boy was over the moon and had tears of joy in his eyes. As a result, the hand is more than just a piece of plastic for the children. It acts as a kind of shield that protects them from being bullied and boosts their self-confidence.