Giving dad a helping hand
Every time Martin Calleja tried to butter a slice of bread he was overcome by frustration as he struggled to hold the knife with the prosthetic hand he had fitted after losing his right arm in a motorcycle accident in 2008.
Three months ago, after Mr Calleja became immensely irritated at his helplessness, his 17-year-old son Luke quietly went upstairs and returned some time later with an electrically operated claw-like contraption for his father.
Using scrap pieces of metal found around the house and a small motor from an old radio-controlled model, he came up with the electric claw – a device that opens and closes and allows his father to hold things.
“Seeing what my son did for me was very emotional,” Mr Calleja said, bursting into tears.
“These are tears of joy... After the accident I could no longer open a letter, pour myself a glass of water or make a sandwich. I was very frustrated... What Luke did helped be regain my independence,” he said, admiring his son sitting across the dining room table at their St Paul’s Bay home.
“I just wanted to help my father,” the shy teenager said as he nervously fidgeted with a hook that once formed part of his father’s prosthetic arm.
Mr Calleja burst into a smile: “I was like Captain Hook before... but I prefer the Terminator look I have now.”
Mr Calleja lost his arm in August 2008 when he was riding along the St Paul’s Bay bypass on his motorcycle. The accident happened when a four-wheel drive suddenly steered into him to avoid another car.
The impact sent him hurling towards a crash barrier that sliced off his arm on impact and seriously injured his leg.
Mr Calleja spent a week in the hospital’s intensive care unit while his wife, Janette, and their children Luke and Rachel hoped he would pull through.
As his condition improved and the drug doses were reduced, he started coming to the terms with the fact his arm had been amputated above the elbow.
“I was never really bothered about the aesthetic aspect. What most affected me was that I could no longer do manual work and felt a bit useless. I am used to fixing things myself. A friend called me the miracle man. Besides, my main hobby is motorcycling which I can no longer do,” Mr Calleja said.
He was also forced to shut down his auto electrician’s business, placing a financial burden on his family.
A few months after the accident, he was fitted with a prosthetic arm equipped with a hook that could be replaced with a rubber hand.
The mechanical arm was operated by moving the upper part of the arm. But, since he had no movement in the remaining part of his arm, he found it difficult to use.
“When I struggled to do something at home, I used to get frustrated but refused help from my family as I wanted to manage alone. So Luke created something that would help me do things myself,” the proud father said.
Luke, who has mild dyslexia, recently started a three-year course in automotive maintenance at the Malta College of Arts Science and Technology.
“As a small child, Luke used to love spending time with my father who was always making and fixing things... One Christmas we bought him toy tools but he was not impressed as he was used to the real thing.
“When my father passed away he left all his tools to Luke. He used them to make the electric claw,” Mr Calleja said.
Since Luke made the device, he and his father joined forces to fine tune it and came up with new and improved versions.
The latest model, which they call version VC, is made of aluminium plates and is operated with the motor of a printer. It has rubber tips to help him grip small objects and neck controls from where Mr Calleja can open and close the claw using his chin.
His son’s modification only cost a handful of euros – buying an electric prosthetic would have set them back about €51,000.
As Mr Calleja and his son keep working on improvements to the electric claw, he remains hopeful that one day he will be able to ride his motorcycle with his friends again. His rider friends are already working on turning his old bike into a four-wheeler – the Tri Bird – and are currently collecting money to complete it.
“They have been my friends since childhood and they never abandoned me... If today you had to ask me if I would take my arm back, but lose my friends and family, I’d say no,” he said.
Mr Calleja thanked his friends and family for their support through two videos about his experience which he posted on You Tube under the headings ‘electric claw’ and ‘Tri Bird’.