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Jacksonville man dons artificial fingers

Jerry Zickrick lost the two middle fingers on his left hand, but he found the next best thing on the World Wide Web.

An accident with a table saw 18 months ago left the Jacksonville man with two short stubs that ended just below the first knuckle. Therapists had told him he could be fitted with fingers that looked real, but wouldn't bend on their own. Zickrick wanted something that would curl and grip like the digits he lost.

His treatment team told him such fingers didn't exist. Nobody had figured out how to make something as small as a finger that would bend like a finger.

Zickrick had plenty of time on his hands while he was recovering, so he started searching the Internet for a solution. One day he fired up Google and typed in "finger prosthesis."

The search eventually led him to Dan Didrick in Naples, Fla. Didrick was just going public with a sleek plastic-and-steel prosthetic digit that flexed at the joints like the real thing. Covered with a thin sheath of flesh-toned plastic, Didrick's "X-Finger" looked real, too.

"They're probably as close to natural as you're going to get," Zickrick said.

Zickrick arranged to have Didrick send him some prototype fingers, and he was so impressed that he decided to invest in Didrick's fledgling enterprise. His accident had made him suddenly aware of the number of people who have fewer than 10 fingers.

"It's amazing when you start to look around how many people are missing digits," he said.

The fingers are neither robotic nor bionic. They attach to the stump of an amputated finger, and are activated by the motion of the stump. When the stump moves, it pushes an activating bar that in turn causes the artificial joints to flex, which allows the whole finger to curl.

"The more pressure you put on it the more it grips," Zickrick said Wednesday, grasping a bottle of water to show his new fingers' ability.

Didrick, who has all his own digits, said in a telephone interview that the X-Finger represents four years of work. He originally set out to design a moveable finger after he heard about a deaf woman who had trouble signing because she was missing a finger.

"I've always liked puzzles," he said, "things like Rubik's Cube. I can see things in 3-D."

He had no medical background, so he started studying the anatomy of the finger, and discovered it actually grows longer when it curls because the knuckles expand. He hired design engineers to put his ideas on paper, but found they couldn't share his vision.

"I knew exactly what I wanted to have made," Didrick said, "but I couldn't explain it."

He finally bought himself a computer design program and taught himself to use it. Within two weeks he had his first designs. Last May his invention took second place in a national competition.

He's fitted about 50 people with artificial fingers, but the process is expensive and time-consuming because each patient has different requirements. The length of the stump and the size of the digits make each patient unique, he said.

"There are about 600 different possible configurations of all the different sizes," he said.

Zickrick's situation is unusual because he lost two adjacent fingers, which complicates the process of attaching the prosthetic digits. For a single finger, a wire harness can attach the prosthesis to the hand, but for Zickrick the wires tended to get caught in the crease at the top of the palm.

Zickrick is currently on his fourth version of the twin prostheses. Each prototype eventually goes back to Didrick with suggestions for improvement. The latest model joins the fingers to the hand with a patch of leather across the top of the hand that attaches to a wristband to provide stability.

"I can see the improvements," said Janis Gubser, Zickrick's therapist at Providence Hand Clinic in Medford. "A few more tweaks and he'll have it."

Gubser said the new fingers show how a technological breakthrough can suddenly provide new options in health care. "Technology continually changes," she said. "There's hope on the horizon for people who have a catastrophic injury. They shouldn't give up."

Didrick said he hopes the fingers will eventually be available to the veterans who have lost fingers in Iraq and Afghanistan. He's also working with Medicare to have the finger qualified as a functional prosthesis, which is a covered medical expense. Cosmetic prostheses generally aren't covered by insurance.

Zickrick has come to think of his accident as an opening to something new and exciting.

"You can sit around and say, 'Woe is me. Why did that happen?' " he said, "but if I hadn't done this, I wouldn't have the opportunity to work on these fingers. Look at how many people are going to have an advantage because of these."

On the Web: www.didrickmedical.com.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail bkettler@mailtribune.com.

Jerry Zickrick of Jacksonville says his high-tech prosthetic fingers are the first artificial digits that work like real fingers. - Denise Baratta