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Meet a pioneer of advanced arm prosthetics

Johnny Matheny, who lost his arm to cancer in 2008, is a pioneer of advanced arm prosthetics. Science correspondent Miles O'Brien profiles him as part of a larger series on the new technology powering robotic arms.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now to a profile of a man who's truly become a pioneer in helping to develop advanced arm prosthetics.

    Last week, science correspondent Miles O'Brien reported on the latest in artificial limbs and their limitations.

    Tonight, he tells us the personal story of an amputee who's willing to take risks.

    Johnny Matheny is the Chuck Yeager of advanced arm prosthetics. He has tested them all and is pushing the barriers.

  • WOMAN:

    And stretch again. Ready, and go.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    He is a pioneer.

  • JOHNNY MATHENY, Advanced Prosthetics Test Subject:

    And everybody tells me that I'm the only one that has had my stump into every advanced prosthetic in the United States.

    Yes, I would say I'm a pioneer of it now.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    He lost his arm to cancer in 2008. Unable to return to work as a retail bread sales and delivery man, he was looking for a new purpose in life. He wondered if he could help wounded warriors.

  • JOHNNY MATHENY:

    I said, I have had three children in the service. I said, luckily, they have come out with all their extremities, but they have had a lot of their buddies that wasn't so lucky. And I would like to get in to maybe help contribute — contribute back for all those who give for us.

    I want to be able to have an arm that they can put back on, that they can go right in, and they can touch their baby's cheek and feel the softness of the skin. I want them to be able to go down and change their diapers and know that they have got it right, it wasn't too loose or too tight.

    What I wanted to do was get myself working to a way that I could contribute to helping out with the new prosthetics and stuff that would be coming along.

    I will tell you what I'm doing with my phantom limb, so you will know how it's creating this here. It's like, right now, I'm opening my hand up.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    He underwent targeted muscle reinnovation surgery, which moved the nerves that control his missing limb into muscles in his stump, so that he can better control the modular prosthetic limb designed at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory,

    He has volunteered to be a subject in a study at Cleveland VA Medical Center and Case Western Reserve University which is giving arm amputees sensory feedback from their prosthetic. And he's interested in participating in a study osseointegration prosthetics, which are implanted in an amputee's bone.

    At age 60, Johnny believes he's the perfect person to take the risks on behalf of other amputees.

  • JOHNNY MATHENY:

    I would rather it be me than these young guys coming back, because still got their whole life ahead of them. I want to be up there. If it works, that's great. If it fails, I would rather it be me than somebody else.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Johnny is a man on a mission. He has turned misfortune into an opportunity to help change the world for the better.

  • JOHNNY MATHENY:

    Ever since I have been small, I have always thought there was a reason for the season. So, certain things happen to you in your lifetime, you know there's a reason for it.

    And you — and most of the time, you know, you may not know at the beginning what it is, but eventually you figure out why. And that's the way it is. When I lost my arm, I had not a clue, you know, why I would lose my arm. And then all of a sudden, man, it just — this world opened up, I got on this train, and I have been at full speeds ever since. They just can't slow me down.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    He is helping researchers break the barrier between engineering and biology.

  • JOHNNY MATHENY:

    It's A-OK, Joe.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    One intrepid volunteer making bionics a reality.

  • JOHNNY MATHENY:

    I will be able to walk down the road and see some of the arms that I have worked with, I have tried, I know they work. I have bettered somebody's life. And I can hold my head up high and throw my shoulders back and say, yes, I helped them. That's my payday.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Miles O'Brien, the PBS NewsHour, Laurel, Maryland.

  • WOMAN:

    All right, and we have got octopus arm.

  • JOHNNY MATHENY:

    Now you can see octopus arm.

  • WOMAN:

    Oh, my gosh.

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