November 17th, 2008

The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
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A Learning Experience
By John Colburn, WA. DC

"Live and learn." How often have you heard that?

Well, for the past several weeks I must really be living, because I've really been learning.

As a part of the Healing Waters Fly Fishing Project I've been teaching fly tying to four servicemen at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. That's no big thing in itself; I've taught quite a few fly tyers-over the years.

What makes this class different and a real learning experience is that three of the men lost their left arms in action in Afghanistan and Iraq. They were taking the tying class as a part of their occupational therapy to learn fine motor skills with their new artificial arms and hands. The fourth did not lose an arm, but his right elbow and hand had been badly wounded by an Improvised Explosive Device in Iraq and has very little movement and almost no sensitivity. Fortunately, the three with artificial arms were right handed while the one with the wounded right arm was left handed. That would simplify things I thought.

The first class was held, and the learning began. Oh yes, the students did learn, but I probably learned much more. That class involved just the basics: the fly tying tools and their uses, placing the hook in the vise, tying the thread on the hook, and doing a whip finish, either with the Materelli whip finish tool or with the finders. The video from the DVE set, Basic Fly Tying with Marve Nolte demonstrating the procedures, was projected on the wass, giving the students a clear view of the good clear demonstration.

The simple acts of adjusting the vise, placing a hook in it, and starting the thread on the hook - simple acts for us "temporarily able" folks - required special techniques because of the different types of prosthesis and an almost inert right hand. With the help of Sandy Burk, we were able to make adaptations that got the basics done.

Then came the whip finishing. The three with prosthesis were soon able to use the whip finish tool, but the southpaw was having proble with it. So I had him try the two fingered whip finish. That was even worse, so I tried to demonstrate it for him.

I had been using the two fingered whip finisher for more than 50 years, but only with my right hand. After about 15 minutes of fumbling and failure, I tied a left-handed whip finish! After seeing me do it several times, the student tried it and soon was able to tie a whip finish with fingers. With that success, the class was dismissed.

The motivation and determination of these guys is something to see. They know that besides learning something useful, they are developing the fine motor skills that will help them do many other things with their prosthesis and wounded arm and hand. They are also involved in the fly fishing part of the Healing Waters Project so they will be able to use the flies they tie on their fishing trips in the Spring.

I am probably learning more than the students. Besides learning to do a left-handed whip finish, I am learning to make other adaptations to compensate for the prosthesis and the wounded limbs. I'm also learning that the plans I made about teaching the class were only a very rough guide. The class will take longer than expected, and further adaptations will have to be made.

This is far from being the easiest job I've ever done, but the rewards are great. Just knowing that I'm helping these guys learn to use their wounded hands and prosthesis and have confidence in their bodies is reward enough. ~ John Colburn (Phly Tyer) The Soldiers' Home, Washington, DC

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