New hands, new life for fire victim

Jodi is shown here with her Grandmother Pauline Roberts-Gooch.

Jodi is shown here with her Grandmother Pauline Roberts-Gooch.

By Pat Maurer
Correspondent

Nearly two and a half years ago, Jodi Mata, now 32, was so badly burned in a fire that destroyed her Harrison home that she lost her fingers and almost all of her thumbs on both hands.

Although she is still recovering from what was, and has been a horrible and painful ordeal, she said, “I am so grateful for all the blessings God has granted, including my new ‘paws,’ which have taught me to ‘pause’ and appreciate the opportunity I now have to help others directly.”
Today she is learning how to use two new “prosthetic” hands that use new “Touch Bionics” technology.

“The first time [after the fire] that I saw my arms was probably the hardest day of my life, except for losing my Mom,” she said. “Now I feel like I have a chance for a normal life.”

Jodi’s mother died just a few months before the fire. “She was a wonderful person and an inspiration for my sister and me.” She said. “She was a single mom who worked long, long hours to support us through school. She worked hard and even paid off her home by herself, before she remarried.”

Her mother’s determination to provide for and raise her daughters instilled in them a unique work ethic. Jodi has juggled several careers over the years. “I’ve always had two or three jobs,” she said. “I’ve worked since I was 14.”

She graduated from Harrison High School in 2001 and went on to put herself through college.
Before the fire, she earned her Bachelors in English from Saginaw Valley State University, taught at Mid-Michigan Community College for two and a half years then went back to Central Michigan University and earned Master’s degree.

Jody relaxes with her Grandmother Pauline Roberts-Gooch and friend Joseph Scott.

Jody relaxes with her Grandmother Pauline Roberts-Gooch and friend Joseph Scott.

She also lived in Oklahoma for about three years where she worked and started college, coming back to complete her Bachelor’s at SVSU.
Along the way, she also was a professional photographer, was working on a novel and sold decorative candles. Over the years she worked at a local gas station, as a server at the Doherty Hotel and at the Secretary of State offices in Clare, Mt. Pleasant, Alma and Midland for six and a half years.

“I’ve done a lot in my life. I’m glad I did because it has made living without fingers much easier,” she said.
Losing her mother, then her fingers a few months later was hard, but Jodi is no stranger to loss. Just a year ago she lost her boyfriend Donald Smith, and she lost her best friend Justin last November.

“He helped me through everything. We have been best friends since high School. He died suddenly last fall of organ failure.” She continued, “He was the only person left in the world that really knew me, that I could always talk to.”

She continued, “It has been hard, but I believe in God and that there is a reason for everything. God’s timing is perfect. Even though people that I loved more than anything have died, I believe there is a reason I am still here and I know I will see them again.”

The fire that changed Jodi’s life happened at 3067 Melanie Lane, Harrison at 12:00 a.m. September 18, 2013. The home was just north of the Harrison City limits

Although Jodi now has two “bionic hands” and is learning to use them, she still keeps up with writing a daily journal of her experiences and progress back to a normal life.

Although Jodi now has two “bionic hands” and is learning to use them, she still keeps up with writing a daily journal of her experiences and progress back to a normal life.

just north of Townline Lake Road and was owned by Keith Cornell, Jodi’s stepfather. “It was my mother’s house, the one she worked so hard to pay off,” she said. She said Keith has since built a new home at the site.

Jodi said she was in bed reading a book when a candle on a dresser in her room fell over into a basket of papers. “It was on fire,” she said. “I tried to smother the fire with a comforter wrapped around my hands. I was on the bed with all my weight on my hands in the comforter. It melted around my hands. That was the worst pain ever and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. The fire burned my arm, knee and my face. I remember screaming for my sister who lived in a trailer next door. The room was full of books and papers. It went up so fast. I became disoriented and I was leaning on the wall praying for forgiveness. I was on fire. I knew I was going to die. My stepfather woke up and saw me through the doorway on his way out. He yelled at me, came in, grabbed me by my hair (it was up in a bun) and dragged me out. At that point the whole room was on fire, even the doorway. He saved my life.”

Jodi was taken by ambulance to the Clare Airport and airlifted by helicopter to Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids, where she spent the next three to four days in an induced coma. “They said my lungs were full of tar,” she said. “I’m a non-smoker, it was from the fire.”

The treatment for first degree burns was excruciatingly painful. Despite everything she was going through, she still feels she was very lucky. “I had burns over 70 percent of my body. The nurses at Butterworth were amazing. My surgeon on the burn unit, Dr. Do, a hand specialist was there for the first time. He was wonderful and did everything possible, but I still lost all my fingers.”

It has been a long road to recovery for Jodi. She spent several months in the hospital and has had more than 30 surgeries [including 10 as an outpatient].
After her release from Butterworth, she was referred to Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids, a 167-bed acute care inpatient rehabilitation hospital for injury or illness requiring physical rehabilitation. In 2014 the facility expanded into a teaching and research hospital.

Jodi Mata has learned to write again, even without fingers, a testament to her incredible determination to live a normal life.

Jodi Mata has learned to write again, even without fingers, a testament to her incredible determination to live a normal life.

She moved to Grand Rapids, living with friend Justin while she began her rehabilitation at Mary Free Bed with the help of Certified Prosthetist-Orthoptist Katie Johnson, a person she considers her close friend. “She has helped me through so much,” she said.

“I wanted robotic hands,” Jodi said. “I have learned to write again, using what is left of my two hands, but I wanted hands that really worked, that I could use naturally.”

She said getting the bionic hands approved by her insurance was extremely difficult. “The insurance denied me seven times,” she said, “We fought for two years, until Katie helped to apply again. I wrote to them.” Katie said Jodi is one of the first patients to get this type of technology. Each of her especially designed hands cost over $100,000.

Katie designed and engineered the hands just for Jodi. “We worked with Touch Bionics. We tested and made molds of Jodi’s hands, made silicone into flexible sockets and developed the hands which are powered by batteries. They use muscle signals to operate. The ‘hands pick up signals from Jodi’s muscles and move according to the strength of the signal and the speed. The electrodes are imbedded in the silicone sockets of the hands.

Jodi got her first “hand,” the left, on Christmas Eve. She got the right one about four weeks ago. “I am now working with the hands every day with a goal of writing well again and being able to use things naturally.” She is one the first Mary Free Bed patients with this type of hand featuring new quantum technology.
Katie, who is a biomed engineer, said she loves her job. “It pulls in all the things I love to do.”

She said she has been doing this type of work for about five years. “Every one (bionic hand) is one hundred percent different.” She said she has enjoyed working with Jodi. “She has been through so much,” she said, “She is very passionate and wants to be independent. Now I think she is at a point where she can start doing things for herself. It is pretty amazing to watch someone walk, or use their hands, restoring function to someone’s life again for the first time.” She added, “Hands are a special part of everybody’s life, a pretty special thing.”

After Justin died, Jodi moved back to Harrison. “I needed to come home where I have family support,” she said. Her sister, two nephews and her grandmother Pauline Roberts-Gooch are close by. “If I didn’t have her and my nephews Kyle and Corey Davis, I might have given up,” she said. “They made the difference for me.”

Now she lives alone, and is learning to be independent. “Cooking and eating is hard now that I am on my own,” she said, “but I manage.”
Jodi still makes (216 mile round trips) monthly trips back to Mary Free Bed and is now an Ambassador for Touch Bionics and for Mary Free Bed and is featured in some of their videos. She hopes to become an inspirational public speaker and share her experience with others. “My goal is to help other people and give them hope. I hope I can make a difference.”

Touch Bionics, of Livingston, Scotland, has facilities in Hilliard, Ohio and Bloomingburg, New York.
To learn more about Jodi’s incredible journey, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KI_SfzPLI98

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