Emmie Wanzer, age 11, likes to do things for herself. Paralyzed at age 2 with transverse myelitis, Emmie hasn’t let that stop her from living her life to the fullest. A quadriplegic, with no feeling from the neck down, Emmie operates her motorized wheelchair with a tilt of her head.
“Independence is a big deal for Emmie,” said her mom, Kari. “She doesn’t want us doing things for her…she likes to figure out a way to get things done herself.”
A student at Jackson Middle School, Emmie plays the xylophone and snare drum in the school’s band and was recently selected for advanced art class (she uses a mouth stick to draw and paint). She was also recently cast in the role of a jellyfish in North Canton Playhouse’s production of Finding Nemo Jr.
An avid YouTube enthusiast, Emmie especially likes to watch videos about people with special needs.
“She watched an episode about a man with SMA (spinal muscular atrophy) who got a robotic arm, and she was fascinated,” said Kari.
Unbeknownst to Kari, Emmie, showing her independent streak, took it upon herself to email the company.
“She explained in her email who she was and why she thought she would be a great candidate for their robotic arm,” said Kari (who only found out about Emmie’s email when a representative from the company contacted her to set up a trial).
In Feb. 2023, the company representative came to Emmie’s school with the lightweight, carbon fiber device for her to practice. After attaching the trial arm to her wheelchair, he had Emmie practice stacking a block, pushing open a door and pressing an elevator button.
“She picked it up fast. She’s at a good age for learning about tech – she’s not intimidated by it,” said Kari.
Manufactured by Kinova, the Jaco assistive robotic arm was designed to help people with upper-body mobility limitations become more independent. And that’s exactly what it’s done for Emmie. From being able to help her mom put dishes away to getting herself a snack out of the pantry, Emmie is enjoying her newfound independence.
“Emmie can now hold her own drink, hold her phone and feed herself certain foods,” said Kari.
The Jaco arm has 4 joints (the shoulder, elbow, wrist and fingers) that can all be controlled by Emmie with her head switch. It can move from side to side, up and down, back and forth, rotate and clasp things with the fingers allowing for 16 movements to mimic the smoothness and versatility of a fully functioning human arm.
On a recent visit to Akron Children’s Myelo Clinic, where she sees specialists from neurology, urology, orthopedics, gastroenterology and physiatry, Emmie showed off her new arm to her providers by applying her makeup, eating potato chips and even shaking the hand of Dr. Micah Baird.
Emmie has nicknamed her arm Gabby Grabber and enjoys being able to hold her own sketch book in art class now.
“I can adjust the angle of the sketch book as I am drawing,” said Emmie.
Just like a human arm, things can break.
“Emmie caught one of the fingers on a windowsill and broke it,” said Kari. “Luckily, the company sent us a loaner arm.”
With about 500 people in the world who currently have the Jaco arm, the Wanzers know how lucky they are that their insurance company paid for it. The manufacturer of the arm hopes to help insurance companies see that by enhancing a person’s independence, they can save money on other things, like caregivers.
“We submitted the trial video of her using the arm to insurance,” said Kari. “It’s considered a prosthetic arm and it has drastically improved her quality of life.”
Emmie, who’s had the arm for less than 2 months, is looking forward to using the arm to master more tasks and cook with her mom.
“There are lots of video tutorials she can watch, but she has been picking things up so quickly I can’t wait to see what else she can do in another 2 months,” said Kari.
To learn more about Akron Children’s Myelo Clinic visit akronchildrens.org.