Claudia Breidbach was born without a left forearm. She now wears a powered prosthesis, which she will be using for the powered prosthetic arm race at Cybathlon 2020.
The gentle hum of a motor is audible as Claudia Breidbach reaches for her cup. The fingers of her powered arm prosthesis grip the cup in a smooth, controlled movement.
By some whim of nature, Breidbach was born without a left forearm, yet she recalls a carefree childhood: "It was all I knew. It’s not like I ever lost anything." Her parents supported her where they could, and even more importantly, they showed tremendous faith in her ability to cope by herself. "They accepted me exactly as I was," she says. But when she turned 11, Claudia Breidbach wanted to be like her friends - and that’s when she embarked on a whole new chapter of her life with an arm prosthesis. The first model had no grip function. It helped her walk straight and ride a bike, but what Breidbach liked most was that her disability was no longer visible at first glance. Even so, she has always found it challenging to meet new people, especially judging whether they are more interested in her as a person or in her disability. "I’ve had negative experiences that have made me quite thin-skinned in social situations," she says.
Choosing a career also posed a challenge. Breidbach wanted to be a tailor, but that didn’t work out. "I can accept my limits. But it’s important to me that I’m given the opportunity to try," she explains. In the end, she opted to study architecture. She constantly had to prove herself and overcome obstacles, but her persistence paid off. She spent many years working as an architect for the city of Koblenz. Now, however, she has transformed her true calling into a career with a job as a training manager at prosthesis maker Össur. Few things excite her more than introducing prosthetic arms to those who need them.
Breidbach wears an Össur prosthetic arm herself, which she will be using to participate in Cybathlon 2020. A multi-articulating prosthesis with a separate motor for each finger, it allows Breidbach to select from 36 different grips. She controls the opening and closing of the hand through muscle contractions in the arm stump, which is connected to the prosthesis via electrodes, and she can perform other movements by making gestures. The prosthesis can also be controlled via an app that allows users to programme their own choice of grips. Her new prosthesis has changed her life. "People treat me differently," she says. "I’m proud of this prosthesis, and people can see how much confidence that gives me." It also makes her much more independent. "I absolutely love my prosthesis. I feel such a close bond to it, and it has improved my quality of life."Right now, Breidbach is primarily focused on training for Cybathlon 2020. She took part in the powered arm prosthesis race four years ago, and she’s particularly excited about a new discipline that the organisers have added to the course.
Known as the haptic box challenge, it requires Cybathlon pilots to feel objects of different shapes and materials with their prosthesis and identify them without any visual feedback. "I had never experienced the sensation of feeling something with my left hand," says Breidbach. "I couldn’t sleep a wink after the first training sessions. It was a really emotional moment."
She can hardly wait to demonstrate what she and her arm prosthesis can do at the upcoming Cybathlon. The gentle hum of the motor will be drowned out by the crowd cheering her on.