s
s
Sections
Search
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, nearly 1.5 million people used their mobile devices to visit our sites.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Wow! You read a lot!
Reading enhances confidence, empathy, decision-making, and overall life satisfaction. Keep it up! Subscribe.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Oops, you're out of free articles.
Until next month, you can always look over someone's shoulder at the coffee shop.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, we posted 390 stories about the fire. And they were shared nearly 137,000 times.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Supporting the community that supports us.
Obviously you value quality local journalism. Thank you.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Oops, you're out of free articles.
We miss you already! (Subscriptions start at just 99 cents.)
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
X

The "Follow This Story" feature will notify you when any articles related to this story are posted.

When you follow a story, the next time a related article is published — it could be days, weeks or months — you'll receive an email informing you of the update.

If you no longer want to follow a story, click the "Unfollow" link on that story. There's also an "Unfollow" link in every email notification we send you.

This tool is available only to subscribers; please make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

Login

X

Please note: This feature is available only to subscribers; make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

LoginSubscribe

The high-tech, bionic arm that Kya Hill took home last week doesn't yet sport the pink camouflage finish she's been promised.

But the Lake County high school senior's bold, irreverent choice pretty much sums up how she's confronted losing her right arm.

<NO1><NO><NO1><NO><NO1><NO><NO1><NO><NO1><NO>The daughter of a retired firefighter and an emergency medical technician, Hill was <NO1><NO><NO1><NO>in full command as she and her boyfriend raced to the nearest fire station after the Nov. 3 accident that ripped away her arm and, with it, Hill's dream of serving as an Army airborne medic.

<NO1><NO>Fresh from the hospital a week later, she was off to a Middletown High School football game to promenade on the field with the cheer squad and let everyone see that she would be OK.

And a week after that, she went back to school<NO1><NO><NO1><NO>, though the faculty ultimately convinced her to take a few more weeks to adjust and work through her pain.

In the months since, Hill, 17, has become something of a hometown hero for adapting to her new life with the kind of resiliency, fortitude and humor that belies her age — though friends and loved ones expected nothing less.

"Anyone who knows her knows how she is," said Hill's best friend, Karen Castellanos. "If there's something in her way, she doesn't care. She just goes for it."

<NO1><NO><NO1><NO><NO1><NO><NO1><NO>Hill's super toughness and apparent refusal to buckle in the face of her traumatic loss actually had loved ones afraid that she wasn't facing her new reality.

Hill herself said she was just glad to be alive, and said it wasn't "worth the time to be depressed."

<NO1><NO>But friends say her emotions seem more transparent in recent weeks, the highs and lows more conspicuous. And Hill admits to desperate days when she just wants to cry, almost as if crying hard enough might make her arm grow back.

She had a low period earlier this month, anticipating the arrival of her new prosthetic arm and hand — a nearly $200,000<NO1><NO> high-tech marvel that will <NO1><NO>require months of frustrating, exhausting effort to learn to operate smoothly, using muscle contractions to generate electrical signals that open and close, rotate, bend and lock the arm.

After four months of adapting to life with mere inches of arm below her right shoulder, she has to readjust all over again, she said.

"I'm excited," Hill said in typical matter-of-fact tone. "But I'm anxious, too."

Hill calls the accident that took her arm the four seconds that changed her life.

<NO1><NO><NO1><NO>She and her boyfriend of about one month, Sam Weatherwax, were headed over the hill on Highway 29 to a St. Helena Safeway for groceries when his pickup hit something slick six or seven miles out of Middletown and slid to the right.

The passenger-side wheels dropped into a ditch about 18 inches deep <NO1><NO>and, for a few agonizing seconds, the truck scraped against a rough rock wall along the road.<NO1><NO><NO1><NO>

Hill knew when her head hit the ceiling that her seatbelt had snapped. <NO1><NO>Her window shattered<NO1><NO><NO1><NO> and her arm was somehow yanked from the cab, flung back between the door frame and rocky surface, and shredded as the truck moved forward.

Weatherwax, 22, was unhurt.

But tangled in the seatbelt and frame of Hill's window was a mess of <NO1><NO>pulverized tissue from her upper arm. She could see her brachial artery had been slit and was gushing blood onto her lap. Only a strip of skin connected her forearm to what was left below her shoulder.

<NO1><NO><NO1><NO><NO1><NO><NO1><NO><NO1><NO><NO1><NO>But Hill — "I'm not kidding" — says a splinter of glass embedded in one of her fingers hurt more, and she struggled to resist the spreading warmth that flooded her system, making her feel "ready to die."

"It didn't hurt. I wasn't scared," she said. "I just was mad I wasn't going to be able to go to the Army, and I was worried about getting to school the next day."

Weatherwax turned the truck around and headed back to Middletown, desperately seeking a signal on his cell phone to call 911 and trying to go fast without putting them at additional risk.

<NO1><NO>Hill was no stranger to medical emergencies. She lives with her father, Curtis Hill, a retired firefighter/medic. Her brother is a paramedic and several other relatives, including her uncle, are in the fire service<NO1><NO>.

Her mother, Sue Hill, is an emergency room technician whose young daughter often attended EMT class when child care was unavailable.<NO1><NO>

In the moments after the accident, <NO1><NO>the teenager knew she could bleed to death if she didn't get the artery<NO1><NO> clamped.

She got Weatherwax to remove her belt and fashion a loop for a tourniquet, but then couldn't find a way to get it over her arm. So she instead put her thumb in her armpit to clamp the artery as tightly as possible — so tightly, firefighters later had to pry her hand off.

Hill was calm and focused when the pickup finally pulled into a Cal Fire station on Highway 175, where she began instructing firefighters to "do their job," Weatherwax said with a grin.

<NO1><NO><NO1><NO><NO1><NO><NO1><NO><NO1><NO>One first responder, Cal Fire Engineer Phil Mateer, said Hill's presence of mind and positive attitude impressed everyone there that night. "For her, being in the condition she was in, I was amazed," he said.

And finally, after many pleas, Hill let Weatherwax call her dad. Calmly, she told him there had been an accident, she was all right, "but my arm's gone."

Until that day, Hill's plan after June 1 graduation was to report to boot camp July 2 in South Carolina to start her training with the U.S. Army. She'd enlisted the previous summer for an eight-year post as an airborne combat medic.

After years of horseback riding, raising animals like emus and goats on her father's acreage off Western Mine Road, and working with the livestock at her school farm, she had contemplated careers in agriculture and veterinary science.

But "I like high stress, high action, think-on-your-feet" environments, she said.

She had no Plan B.

Her battles now involve the thousands of otherwise forgettable actions that make up daily life — from pulling the neoprene compression sock onto her upper arm, to holding down paper so she can more easily write, to dressing, buckling her belt, saddling a horse, sweeping the house and diapering her baby sister, Charlee, 6 months.

Many of these chores she's mastered, creatively using her teeth or her toes, walls and other surfaces to manipulate objects or hold things in place.

"The way she does her hair is incredible," Weatherwax said of Hill's casual updo one day last week, mimicking how she'd twisted it into place and leaned into a wall to hold it while she used her single hand to fasten a clip.

"She can do a lot of things by herself, and I don't know how," said Castellanos, whose own contributions include buttoning Hill's pants when she gets to school. "She can tie one shoe — because she uses her toes."

Hill also has acquired a laptop computer with voice recognition software, thanks to a community fund-raiser, and is grateful to be ambidextrous, so she can still write.

But it's Hill's independence, strength and what her mother calls "amazing coping skills" that seem best to explain the girl's determination to overcome the loss of her dominant arm.

She told her mother that even in the minutes after the accident, on her way to the fire station, she knew her arm was lost and "it was irrevocable," Sue Hill recalled, "and she realized it wouldn't be any use being angry or depressed or upset about it, because it was gone. She couldn't get her arm back."

<NO1><NO><NO1><NO>Except for one moment in the hospital in which she tried to catch a dropped water bottle with a hand that wasn't there any longer, Kya Hill said she's been amazed at the speed with which her body naturally rewired itself and began to compensate. She soon started dreaming of herself with one arm, as well, as her loss "became part of my reality."

She no longer experiences phantom pain and said she mostly has the sensation that the fingers of her right hand are glued together and her arm is bent up.

But Hill is having to completely rethink how she functions with her acquisition of a sophisticated prosthetic arm that's requiring her to strengthen and retrain the muscles in her upper arm and shoulder in both isolated and coordinated function.

The timing of her accident means she's benefitting from vast improvements made in upper limb prostheses over the past five or six years, driven by high numbers of amputees returning from military service in Iraq and Afghanistan, though civilian amputees far outnumber soldiers who have lost arms or legs.

Until recently — and despite extraordinary advances in lower limb prostheses — prosthetic arms were not much improved from a century ago, said Southern California prosthesis designer Randall Alley, <NO1><NO>who consulted on Hill's case with Petaluma fabricator Drew Hittenberger.

They were heavy and not especially functional, consisting mainly of a kind of hooked pinching device. Most arm amputees decided to do without.

But Hittenberger said<NO1><NO> Hill needed — and deserved — a state-of-the-art limb if she was going to deliver cows and ride horses, hunt and do all the other physical things to which she's accustomed.

"If there's anyone who will use this, it's her," he said.

Assembled from a wrist, an elbow and a multi-articulating, robotic hand run on rechargeable batteries and acquired from different manufacturers around the globe, the arm has a custom-made fitting shaped to Hill's upper arm and worn with a harness. In a few weeks, it will be remade in carbon fiber — with the pink camo covering.

Two electrical contacts triggered by contractions in what's left of her biceps and triceps, and the muscles between her shoulder blades, signal the arm or hand to move.

But opening, closing, bending and turning are one thing, Alley said. Smoothly performing day-to-day tasks is something altogether different and depends in many cases on figuring out how to <NO1><NO>position the hand and simple practice over the months ahead.

After the first two days of working with it, Hill's muscles were exhausted.

Not to mention, she said, "I'm guessing it won't look that flattering with a bikini."

But Hill was clearly thrilled when, with concentration and a twisted face, she first isolated and activated the correct muscle fibers to open the fingers.

"That's so cool," she said, her contorted face breaking into a huge smile.

Her dad, who fought for weeks with his HMO to cover enough of the prosthesis that it was made possible, wept as he viewed his daughter for the first time in her new arm.

Tears in his eyes, clearly overcome, he simply observed, "Look how whole she looks."

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

Show Comment