This September, Michaela Blakslee went back to school to start Grade 4 with more than just a new lunch box — she had a new arm.
Michaela’s parents, Tracie and Jeremy Blakslee of Holland Landing, explained that from the day their daughter was born, she was missing her left arm below the elbow, two fingers on her right hand and two toes on her right foot.
By the time she was about six months old she was accepted into the War Amps CHAMP (child amputee) program and has been using artificial limbs since she was a little more than one year old.
Just as children quickly outgrow clothing, Michaela has also outgrown several artificial limbs, and at eight years old, is currently on her fourth set, which includes one static arm and one poseable myoelectric arm with a robotic hand.
During an interview with BradfordToday, Michaela demonstrated how she can use a pair of sensors built into the arm, pushing against one to open the robotic hand and against the other to close it.
“I used to have one (sensor) and it was a little bit harder, because I had to use the bottom to close it and the top to open it, and it was really hard to open it and close it,” she said.
The ease with which she can use her new arm helps her with fine motions like making beaded bracelets and other activities.
“It helps me hold onto the swing,” Michaela said of the robotic arm. “I grip on with this one, and then I can swing on the swings.”
Tracie explained that the arm has a built-in battery that can be recharged and usually lasts a few days, but that extra weight makes it heavier than the static arm, which Michaela still favours for now.
“I usually wear this one,” she said, holding out the static arm. “I don’t want to wear the other one to school, because if it gets wet it won’t work anymore.”
The static arm also offers more options for different attachments, including a special clip that makes it easier for Michaela to hold the handle bars on her bicycle — something she enjoys doing frequently.
“I like to ride my bike in the backyard and I ride my bike to school on the sidewalk. And then sometimes, I ride my bike with Grandpa, and he has a scooter, and he rides on that. Then we go around a loop and back to the house,” she said.
While this isn’t the first time one of Michaela’s arms had the attachment for riding a bicycle, this one had a different design that means she can pop it on or off without any help.
She has even found other uses beyond just her bicycle.
“She tried it with a baseball bat, too. She has to practise with it, but it hooks onto a baseball bat or a badminton racket,” Jeremy said.
Another attachment also helps her with gymnastic tumbling, and her myoelectric arm helps her with go-karting and horse-back riding — the latter of which is her favourite hobby.
She described it in one word: “cool.”
On top of those activities, Michaela is also hoping to try out for the basketball team this year.
Her static arm is teal on the inside with pink on the outside and features a black print of one of the horses she used to ride, named Finn.
“I work with horses, and there was a horse that she fell in love with, but he had to move back to Moncton,” Tracie said.
“He teaches little kids how to ride a horse,” Michaela added.
Her robotic arm has the opposite colour scheme and features a black print of flowers and a butterfly.
Michaela described what it was like having the prosthetic arms shaped to fit.
“It was cool. They put plaster around my arm and then it feels weird,” she said.
While the prosthetic arms have enabled Michaela to do plenty of things, there are still some limitations, including actions many of us might take for granted, like lifting larger objects, braiding her own hair, or tying her own shoes.
Due to the missing fingers on her biological hand, she’s also had to learn her own way of writing and even using a fork and knife.
“When I’m eating, I can hold my plate with my hand. I can hold the fork with the electric one, and then I use the knife with my real hand,” Michaela explained while miming the actions of eating a meal.
While it might take a little bit longer, Tracie explained that Michaela prefers to figure out how to do things her own way.
“Especially with me and Jeremy having both of our hands, we’re trying to figure it out for her, but at some point she has to try and make it comfortable for herself. We can tell her how to do it, but she has to figure it out herself,” she said.
Prior to the pandemic, War Amps was hosting seminars at which Michaela could meet other children in the CHAMPs program and they could learn from each other, while parents could support each other.
Tracie is looking forward to those seminars resuming and called the support from War Amps “amazing.”
“We wouldn’t have been able to get her hands, we wouldn’t have the support from other families, like the other moms at the seminars. It was a big support when we first started going. She wasn’t even a year old yet, but just talking to other parents about different ways to do things helped,” she said.
One of the issues other parents discussed navigating was bullying, but Tracie said that hasn’t been much of an issue for Michaela, since nipping it in the bud in Kindergarten.
While she was in Senior Kindergarten, a new group of children joined the class as part of Junior Kindergarten, and Tracie explained they didn’t want to sit with Michaela.
However, the teacher made sure she wasn’t left out, and the War Amps came to make a presentation to class.
“And I got to stand up in front of the whole class,” Michaela said proudly.
“From that day on, the kids just understood it, and I think every CHAMP kid should have the presentation at the school, just to ease other kids into it, but our school has been really good about it.
Even kids at the park will stare, but she’s gotten very brave and she’s just like ‘I was born this way,’ ” Tracie said.
When asked if she spends a lot of time showing the other kids her new arms, Michaela just smiled and nodded confidently.
She’s had plenty of practice. At the age of four, she became part of the War Amps CHAMP Ambassador program, through which child amputees share their stories and promote positive acceptance.
According to the charity, about 30,000 adult amputees are currently enrolled in The War Amps across Canada, and more than 2,000 young amputees (age 0-24) are members of the CHAMP program.
The War Amps was started in 1918 to meet the needs of war amputees across Canada, and now offers those services to all Canadian amputees, with the CHAMP program starting in 1975.
The charity says it does not receive government grants or use professional fundraisers, and instead, is able to operate its many programs through donations from the public to the Key Tag and Address Label Service.
To learn more or to donate, visit their website www.waramps.ca.