Zachary Pamboukas may only be 10, but he knows how to give a firm handshake.
Not too firm — his right hand looks like it could crush steel.
Zachary uses a high-tech artificial arm with a hand that opens and closes on demand.
Call him The Bionic Kid.
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Zachary was born with part of his right hand missing, the result of amniotic band syndrome. The rare condition occurs when strands of a mother’s amniotic sac separate during gestation and entangle digits, limbs or other parts of a fetus.
Therapists recommended outfitting Zachary with a prosthesis at age 2. His parents, Niko and Rachael, decided to wait.
“What they showed us, we felt, wasn’t really helpful,” Rachael said. “It was this plastic hand. It really wasn’t functioning.”
Zachary adapted and created his own work-arounds for situations where two hands were needed.
“I never felt different from anyone else around me,” Zachary said.
Still, his missing hand was a curiosity for people.
“For many years, people would just start with, ‘What happened?” Niko said. “He felt like he had to defend something.”
Zachary, who has a keenly crafted sense of humor, would sometimes tell persistent inquisitors that he “lost my hand in the war” or “a shark ate it.”
IRON MAN V. SPIDER MAN
In the Hollywood “Iron Man” movie franchise, actor Robert Downey, Jr. dons a high-tech suit of armor that allows him to achieve feats of heroic proportion.
In 2015, Downey, Jr. presented a bionic arm to a 7-year-old boy in Florida. The arm was designed by Albert Manero, a University of Central Florida engineering student who created it in part using 3-D printers.
“For children, prosthetics have really limited access, particularly for an articulated hand,“ Manero said. Combined with a child’s ever-increasing growth and the expense, many children go without prosthetics.
Zachary’s grandmother saw a video of the Downey, Jr. presentation and contacted the non-profit organization Manero co-founded, Limbitless Solutions.
Limbitless had never made an arm for someone as young as Zachary, who was 6 at the time. But the family was told to send in a video of Zachary along with his measurements.
“Zachary had this box, and he drew a turntable and he got these Seahawks earmuffs as headphones and he played Bruno Mars’ ‘Uptown Funk’ song,” Rachael said. “They said that video sealed the deal. They loved his energy.”
Inside the Maple Valley family’s suburban home last week, a tall Christmas tree was still standing.
It was during Christmas 2015 when Zachary opened a box to find his bionic arm.
“It was a surprise,” he said. “I didn’t expect one.”
The bionic arm fits over Zachary’s, which ends below the elbow. Electrodes connect to muscles. When Zachary flexes he can open and close the artificial hand.
The arm and hand might look like something out of science fiction, but it gives Zachary only the strength of a typical 10-year-old boy.
“This is just like a tool to help me with stuff,” he said. “When you need to use it, you use it.”
While he could ride his bike using only his left hand, the arm gives him better posture.
“I had to bend down more, and my back was getting sore,” Zachary said of riding with only one hand.
The arm bears distinctive blue-and-red markings similar to a certain superhero. But, it’s not Iron Man.
Spider-Man, it turns out, is his favorite superhero.
Limbitless artists can customize sleeves for each arm they present to a child.
The arm is a hit not only with Zachary but with those who meet him.
“People now approach him, and instead of saying, ‘What did you lose,’ they now say, ‘Where did you get that?’” Niko said.
The first thing other kids want to do when they meet Zachary?
“Shake hands,” he said.
COMIC BOOK HERO
Zachary wants to be an inventor one day. As an adult, he hopes to help kids like him.
But when you’re 10, adulthood can seem like a long ways off. Zachary wanted to help kids now.
Zachary got his bionic arm at no cost. He and his brother Christo, 13, wondered how they could help other kids get free arms, too.
They came up with the idea of a comic book.
For a story, they didn’t have to look far for inspiration. It’s called, “The Bionic Kid.”
“It’s about a kid named Zachary,” Zachary said.
In the comic book, the Zachary character also has a brother named Christo along with a dog named Beary who has a strong resemblance to the Pamboukas family dog named Beary.
The comic Zachary also has a shortened arm.
The similarities end there as Zachary takes on Norman, an egotistical rival in a computer game competition.
“You know you shouldn’t be here, Zachary,” Norman tells him. “You just got here because other players felt sorry for you!”
Things don’t go as either Zachary or Norman planned, and both are accidentally imbued with super hero/villain powers.
Manero makes an appearance in the comic and presents Zachary with his bionic arm.
“It works!” exclaims an excited comic book Zachary.
Niko helped his sons with the story, typed it up and sent it off to Limbitless.
“There was a lot of enthusiasm from our team to do it,” Manero said. “We consulted the authors and helped bring it to life.”
Artists at UCF added art.
“Hopefully, it will inspire other kids in the same situations,” Manero said. He also hopes it will encourage empathy in others.
The Pamboukas family paid for a printing of 500 copies in December. The comic book is selling for $20 at thebionickid.com and all proceeds go to Limbitless.
Issue No. 2 will be published in summer.
REAL LIFE HERO
Spider-Man and Iron Man may be fictional, but Shaquem Griffin isn’t.
Griffin plays linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks. Like Zachary, Griffin is missing a hand as the result of amniotic band syndrome.
“When I first saw him playing, I was surprised that someone like me was playing (football),” Zachary said.
Griffin played college football at the University of Central Florida. Zachary and his family learned about him while on a visit to Limbitless.
“He’s been a great inspiration for kids playing college football, and now he’s on the national stage,” Niko said.
Zachary can recount plays Griffin made in college as well as for the Seahawks. He is such a Griffin fan that he wants to attend UCF.
And Zachary hopes to meet Griffin one day.
“That’s on his major wish list,” Niko said.
Also on the list is a new video game controller being made by Limbitless that will allow kids like Zachary to play games with both hands.
So far, all of Limbitless bionic arms have been protoytpes, presented free of charge to over 20 families.
This spring, 20 kids will receive the next generation prototype, part of clinical trials being conducted in conjunction with Oregon Health and Science University. Zachary hopes to be chosen for the trial.
“The new arms have individual finger dexterity,” Manero said. “Kids will learn how to use each finger and do gestures.”
The arms also have updated batteries and Bluetooth connection, so a parent can monitor its operation.
Zachary, ever the Spider-Man fan, would like one additional feature.
“Web shooter,” he said.