An army veteran who lost the use of his hands as been able to raise a Christmas drink for the first time in three years – thanks to a new robotic arm. John Newcombe, 60, called the “magical” £50,000 device the “best present I could have wished for” after it was donated by the charity Help for Heroes.
The ex-squaddie was struck down with neurological disease multiple sclerosis (MS), thought to have been made worse by injuries sustained in a blast when he served in Northern Ireland in the 1980s.
The cruel condition robbed him off the ability to walk and in recent years has left him unable to use his hands, but his new device mimics the smoothness a human arm.
“I can pick up a cup to have a drink, I can feed my dogs and play with them and have the independence to do very basic things that before I had to ask someone else to do,” said John Newcombe raising a toast to the charity in his local pub.
“No one can imagine how empowering, in fact, sensational that feeling is. When my body was broken, Help for Heroes gave me a new one – they gave me a new pair of legs in the form of my wheelchair, and now a new arm,” he added.
John, who spent 34 years as an infantryman, has become just the fifth person in the UK to get the revolutionary ‘JACO’ robotic arm. The arm, which is mounted to his motorized mobility scooter, allows him to pick up a range of objects through a control panel which he can just about use with his left hand. It means John, who was diagnosed with MS in 2008, can live more independently and can do every tasks such as brush his teeth and feed himself without assistance.
“It is magical that I have a working arm. I learnt to live with being in a wheelchair, but I always said that I wouldn’t be able to cope with losing my hands,” said John.
“When this happened, I felt distraught and useless, I couldn’t feed myself or take a drink – basic things that you need to survive, I could no longer do for myself,” he added.
“I’d lost all control again. It feels overwhelming to have some of that control back – it is the best Christmas present I could have wished for,” he continued.
John and his partner Claire, from Preston, Lancs., were shocked at just how fast his health deteriorated after his initial diagnosis. He was forced to live in their kitchen when the rest of their house became inaccessible.
The couple turned to Help for Heroes, whose specialists visited them to discuss how they could ensure John no longer felt like a prisoner in his own home.
The charity previously provided him with mobility equipment, so he could get out in the countryside, and take his support dog, Casper, on walks before funding the JACO assistive robotic arm, which is not available on the NHS.
“I was 18 when I went to Northern Ireland, that was really scary. During a six-month tour, we were subjected to bombings and shootings. There was a bomb blast that shook my world. The doctor said that I’ve got MS. I just couldn’t believe it. It was just awful because I know what MS is and I thought my only experience of that was somebody in a wheelchair. I was absolutely gutted. I’ve been prepared for everything all my life but this thing, it’s like the worse than an enemy I’ve ever met,” said John
Claire, 44, said the mobility equipment changed his life since his crushing diagnosis. “When we were told that the charity would be able to source an off-road wheelchair for John, we couldn’t believe it. When they then told us that they wanted to provide him with a wheelchair that would stand up, we were astounded. We were able to reignite some of the hopes and dreams that we had for our future,” said Claire.
“The ability for John to stand tall again and speak to people at eye level had a big impact on his self-esteem and mental health. We hadn’t had a proper hug in over six years and the wheelchair enabled us to do that,” she added.
“We had written off the idea that those things would ever happen again, but Help for Heroes realized that, with the right equipment, John’s mindset would enable him to achieve his dreams and they made it happen,” she continued.
Duane Fletcher MBE, Veterans Clinical Advisor for the North and Northern Ireland at Help for Heroes, said the arm would help him carry out basic activities.
“The quality of life this JACO arm gives back to John to maintain his independence is immeasurable. To see him after only a few hours mastering picking keys up from the table and opening doors was amazing, the more he uses the JACO arm, the more independent he will become,” said Duane Fletcher MBE.
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
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