ATHENS — Nick Stafford thought he’d never be able to pursue his hobby of nature photography again.

Stafford, 25, lost most of his right hand in a pellet mill accident in November 2012, and without the use of his fingers, the Canon t3i 500D camera was no good to him anymore.

Then along came the Hanger Clinic, a Texas-based orthotic and prosthetic services provider that has offices on Kennedy Memorial Drive in Waterville and Stone Street in Augusta. Before Stafford knew it, he was clicking the shutter and shooting photos with his new bionic fingers.

“It runs off sensors. There’s a sensor pad located by my pinkie, or where my pinkie would be, and another one in the back,” Stafford said from his father’s and stepmother’s home in Athens. “It runs off very small muscle movements. There are two sensor pads, one for open, one for close, for finger functions. I can actually do quite a bit with it.”

There are three fingers on the prosthetic hand and they interact with his natural thumb and a nub where his forefinger was so he can pinch and pick up items as small as a potato chip or hold a can of soda.

The secret to the interaction between his new fingers and his ability to work with the digits of his hand is an app — my i-limb — which he uses to choose different hand and finger gestures.

“They have a million settings. You can do anything you want to do. They can even customize your own gestures,” Stafford said. “I can control which fingers go down on which pulse. I can change it on the app and send it to my prosthetic. I can go in and see how hard I’m pushing on the muscle with a graph shown on the screen.”

The i-limb app, made by Touch Bionics of Hilliard, Ohio, is a mobile control app that allows patients to easily access the features and settings for their prosthetic device without having to connect to a computer. It’s compatible with Apple devices and connects via a Bluetooth wireless connection, according to the Touch Bionics website. Users can create groups of their favorite grip patterns and triggers with the ability to view a real-time graph of input signals.

“I use it when I do other stuff, too, like when I mow the lawn because I can grab the handle,” he said. “I do use it for cleaning the house and stuff. It was my dominant hand. Now I’ve gotten pretty good with my left hand, too.”

Stafford’s father, Jamie Stafford, contacted Scott Hebert at the Hanger Clinic in Waterville and started the process of getting his son’s bionic hand. Hanger in turn sent them to Touch Bionics in Ohio. The prosthetic device was paid for through Maine Workers’ Compensation and the company’s insurance carrier, the MEMIC Group, which provides workers’ compensation insurance to employers.

Stafford was an employee at Maine Woods Pellet Co. on Harmony Road in Athens when the accident happened.

He was attempting to brush wood chips away from the airlock opening of the company’s dry hammermill and was removing a cover to the rotor blades when he lost four fingers on his right hand and two fingertips on his left. He was treated at a Boston hospital.

Stafford was not trained in the proper procedures to shut down the hammermill, and he was not trained in lockout procedures for the dry hammermill, according to a report from the Bangor office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

OSHA is the main federal agency charged with the enforcement of safety and health legislation.

The company paid a negotiated fine over a period of 10 months, according to Christopher D. Pelkey, a program analyst at the USDOL-OSHA offices in Bangor.

The negotiated fine came to $22,050, or 75 percent of the original fine, Pelkey said. All citation items associated with the accident were abated before Jan. 18, 2013, the date of the negotiation conference, to the satisfaction of OSHA management.

Stafford is again able to maintain Nick Stafford Photography. Two videos about his transformation have been uploaded to Youtube by Hanger.

For now, Stafford says he remains unemployed and plans to enroll in adult education classes in Skowhegan to finish his high school education. Stafford also anticipates getting a lump sum settlement through Workers’ Compensation to help him set up a place to live, buy a vehicle and get on with the rest of his life with a prosthetic hand.

He said his family and friends were there for him and helped him get through a very tough ordeal.

“I actually do really well mentally and emotionally with it because of my friends and their sick humor,” he said. “They keep it good. If you can’t laugh about something, then you’re going to be sad or mad about it. I’d rather laugh about it. Hand jokes actually make me happy. They’re funny. One of my favorite ones is ‘You need a hand?’ Ha ha, yes I do.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter: @Doug_Harlow


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