Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Partly Cloudy Night 29° Partly Cloudy
News >  Health

Utah man helps other amputees learn basic life skills

Samoana “Sam” Matagi, right, and his brother, Fatu Matagi, in 2015 in Salt Lake County, Utah. (Josh Matagi / Josh Matagi)
Samoana “Sam” Matagi, right, and his brother, Fatu Matagi, in 2015 in Salt Lake County, Utah. (Josh Matagi / Josh Matagi)
By Cathy Free Special to Washington Post

Samoana “Sam” Matagi can scale a coconut tree, shave and cast a fly rod on a pristine river – all with no hands.

Matagi, 42, is known on YouTube as the “No-Handed Bandit,” a moniker he bestowed on himself. Since he lost his hands in an accident, he has made dozens of how-to videos, entertaining step-by-step tutorials showing amputees across the globe how to tie a necktie, brush their teeth, drive a car or go rock-climbing.

“It makes my whole week when I come up with a new way to accomplish a task and then share it with other people who have lost their hands,” said Matagi, who lives near Salt Lake City, and works as an elementary school teacher’s aide for special-needs students.

His “no-handed” videos also include lessons for able-bodied people.

“People often feel awkward when they see an amputee struggling with a task,” Matagi said. “They’re not sure what to do, and sometimes their actions can add to the person’s feeling of helplessness.”

His advice?

“Say, ‘I know you can do this, but can I help you?’ ” he said. “That leaves the person with a feeling of empowerment.”

Matagi lost his hands in 2010 in an electrical accident while working as a power lineman in Kremmling, Colorado. He was holding a piece of cut wire that touched a live wire while he was doing maintenance on a transformer from a cherry picker. In an instant, more than 15,000 volts of electricity surged through his body.

After a co-worker rescued him, he was rushed to the University of Colorado Hospital burn clinic, where doctors worked desperately to save his hands. But the damage was too severe. Doctors told him that if he didn’t amputate his hands, he would get gangrene and die.

“It was tough to hear that, but I wanted to live,” Matagi said.

Family members flew from Utah to Colorado to support him, including his brother Fatu Matagi, 38, a father of three and a substitute teacher. Fatu Matagi could relate to his brother’s loss in a way nobody else could: He lost his right hand and arm in an electrical accident while working as a power lineman in 2008.

Fatu Matagi knew that his brother was in for a journey of pain and frustration.

“Get comfortable with failure,” Fatu told his brother. “Everything will be hard, but don’t give up. Eventually, you’ll forget how convenient it was to have two arms and hands.”

Sam Matagi said it was hard to get his head around the idea that both he and his brother were amputees. The younger brother had a lot to teach his older brother.

“I told him, ‘When you find yourself laughing again, you’ll know you are healing,’ ” Fatu Matagi told the Washington Post.

It didn’t take long.

After three weeks in the hospital, Sam Matagi was accompanied by his brother on a flight home for further treatment at the University of Utah Burn Center. On the plane, as Fatu fed Sam a hamburger, the brothers joked about how other passengers were staring at a one-handed guy feeding a no-handed guy, recalled Sam Matagi.

The brothers decided that Sam should be known as “The No-Handed Bandit” and Fatu should be called “The One-Armed Dude.”

“Joking with my brother helped me to cope,” Sam Matagi said. “But even though Fatu is an amputee, he isn’t a double amputee. In the beginning, there were times when I felt alone.”

On social media, Sam Matagi found a community of other double hand amputees who offered support and gave him the courage to find new ways to accomplish old tasks.

“Learning these things gave me a lot of confidence to go out into the world,” he said, adding that he felt compelled to share his newfound knowledge.

He received his prosthetics, and about a year later he became a peer supporter for burn survivors through Phoenix SOAR (Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery). Matagi now regularly offers pep talks at burn rehab group meetings, sometimes accompanied by his brother.

Burn survivors at the University of Utah hospital said Matagi’s energy and enthusiasm are contagious.

Brad Wheeler, a Salt Lake City musician and radio DJ, said he will never forget the day Matagi walked into his group rehab meeting in March 2016. Wheeler, 47, had almost lost his leg in a car accident.

“Sam’s charisma is so strong that you don’t notice right off that he’s missing both his hands,” said Wheeler. “He was empathetic and didn’t tell me how to be or that everything was going to be all right. He simply listened.”

Matagi, who lives in West Valley City, Utah, came up with the idea for his “No-Handed Bandit” series when he searched online for “how to” videos geared toward hand amputees and could find only one.

“Becoming an amputee is like being born again – you have to relearn how to do everything,” he said. “Buttoning was difficult. Tying a necktie. Folding down the collars on a dress shirt. I decided to figure it out and then share what I’d learned.”

From dribbling a basketball and snowboarding to playing Pokemon and grilling chicken, there is little that Matagi won’t try.

“I remember that feeling of helplessness and hopelessness,” he said. “Helping somebody else is good for my soul. It’s what keeps me going.”

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter

Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.