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Prosthetic arm thrills woman

Friends who are like family help change Romanian’s life

For Claudia Voican, 30, the phrase “to give a hand” has life-changing meaning. Born in Romania with a congenital limb deficiency, Voican’s left arm stops just below her elbow. As a result, when she was still a baby, her mother left her at an orphanage. In Romania, a truncated limb carries a stigma.

“In Romania, people think that I’m weird,” Voican said. She described how a restaurant owner refused to let her use the bathroom and told her to leave, even though she was nicely dressed and a paying customer. He saw her arm and assumed she was there to beg. No assurances would change his mind.

With experiences like this, Voican grew up compensating for her missing hand and proving she wasn’t disabled. She played soccer and volleyball, and became so proficient at table tennis that she won many medals at tournaments. And sometimes, she hid her arm in long sleeves to avoid scrutiny and discrimination.

But on March 15, after spending five months in the United States, Voican will return to Romania with two hands, one of them made by Don Christenson of Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics in Spokane.

It is a journey that began in 1997, when Voican was 17 years old. That’s when she met Ronda LeClaire Said.

Said had traveled to Romania on a humanitarian mission. She recalled the first time she saw Voican. “Claudia was giving pennies to beggars on the street. She was actually very afraid of me and not interested in coming near. She looked like a wild, fearful person.”

But Said felt a tug on her heart and she invited Voican to have a cup of tea. That meeting was like a birth. “We made friends. She asked if I would be her mother,” recalled Said, adding that she, of course, said “yes.” Voican was the same age as her own children. “She is like a daughter to me. She is family.”

Voican learned English so she could talk to Said and eventually the women became so close they talked on the phone three hours a week. Over the years, Said tried many times to help Voican leave the country so she could have the other thing she longed for: a hand. Each time the government said “no.”

Finally, this winter, Ronda’s husband, Dr. James Said, succeeded in helping Voican obtain a visa. Among other hurdles, he had to prove they had the funds to pay for a prosthetic by providing a bank statement.

The Saids, who split time between residences in Orofino, Idaho, and Medford, Ore., eventually found Christenson, an upper limb specialist in Spokane who gladly donated his time to make Voican’s prosthetic.

“I was thrilled to help her,” said Christenson. “She has been very rewarding, always willing and wanting to work.”

At her final fitting on March 1, Voican demonstrated the prosthetic. She tied shoelaces, pushed a wheelchair and lifted a stool – tasks common to her life in Romania where she works in an orphanage for disabled children. With a cable-operated strap across her back, Voican can open and close the thumb or lock it in place, enabling her to do many things that had been difficult or impossible. She now can cut an apple, for example.

To help Voican learn these new skills, Carrie Davis, the national coordinator for the Amputee Empowerment Partners mentoring program, also volunteered her time. Davis, who grew up and lives in Spokane, also has a below-elbow congenital limb deficiency, so she speaks with empathy and experience.

“I spent a lot of my childhood proving to people I could do all the things they did,” said Davis.

Voican nodded in agreement, explaining that normal isn’t about how many hands or limbs you have. “I spent a lot of time playing sports. When you see that joy and happiness, that is normal. You can do a lot.”

Now she can do even more. Voican described how she’d longed for a prosthetic since childhood. When she put it on for the first time, she said, “I wanted to jump and scream. It was amazing.”

In addition to the many tasks her new hand helps her perform, it twists off, so she could attach a different terminal device.

On a nearby table, Davis demonstrated several available options, including a paddle-like swimming hand, a guitar pick holder, and a yoga attachment. She handed Voican the yoga device.

For the first time, Voican did several pushups. Then she laughed. When she returns to Romania, Voican said, “It will be good. They’ll say, ‘Wow. She has two hands.’ ”

But the trip has been more than a hand, said Voican, explaining that she feels like she has a family here.

“It has been a wonderful family thing for all of us,” agreed Said, describing how her extended family opened their arms to embrace Voican as a dear relative.

“It was a blessing for me. It will be in my head and heart,” said Voican. “God, he knew I needed family and friends.”