Prosthetic helps Greeley student pilot fly pain-free

By Anne Delaney, The Greeley Tribune

GREELEY, Colo. — When Rudy Aist was 15 years old, he realized he wanted to fly.

Almost by accident, he learned about flying on a whim while trying to earn a merit badge in boy scouts. He said he’s tried other activities, majors and interests over the years, but nothing has stayed with him as deeply as flying.

Last month, over a decade later and with the help and hard work of others, the Aims Community College flight student was finally able to fly without the fear of pain in his left hand.

“It’s exhilarating,” said the 26-year-old from Centennial. “A dream come true, and especially to be in the air with little or no pain. It’s fun.”

Aist was born with a rare condition, which eventually rendered his left hand and wrist useless. He saw early in his flight training at Aims he was going to struggle with tasks in the cockpit such as gripping the controls.

In four years at Aims, Aist has been through a series of prosthetic devices allowing him to increase his level of function. None of the prosthetics was the right fit for flight. The devices, while each offering improvement, all left Aist with concern about his pain level during critical phases of the flight such as take off and landing.

The latter is “most difficult part of a flight,” Aist said, because “everything is happening at once.” The pain only served as a distraction.

“It means the landing is going to be unsafe because I might be holding back because I’m in pain,” he said.

Aist was born with congenital radioulnar synostosis, a condition leading to the abnormal connection of the bones in the forearm, the radius and ulna, according to the National Institutes of Health.

The NIH reports the condition is present in both arms in approximately 60% of cases, and Aist is included in that majority. However, his right arm remains fully functional.

When he was about 7 years old, Aist’s parents noticed Rudy used his left hand differently and they sought treatment in Denver. After an operation, he said, doctors applied a cast too tight and it “suffocated” the arm, leaving skin, muscles and nerves dead and leading to the disability.

Sixteen other operations followed, including a procedure to clean out an infection and another to transplant a muscle from his leg to his arm. He used robotic devices for a while, but he never regained function.

“At this point, the fingers and wrist don’t work,” he said.

In June, Aist finally received full use of the latest prosthetic device — an approximately $5,000 investment secured with financial assistance from Aims. He’s been training and studying at Aims for five years and he expects to finish his associate’s degree in applied science and earn his commercial pilot’s certificate by the end of the summer.

“The goal is to fly and get paid for it,” he said, adding his long-range goal is to fly for NASA. “A big jet that flies the shuttle. I’ve looked into many avenues and many jobs. I’ll go anywhere.”

When an Aims flight instructor learned about Aist’s ongoing battle with prosthetics about two years ago, the man offered to lend his expertise.

Kevin Haynes came to Aims three years ago after a career in healthcare, and he was aware of resources to help Aist. Haynes reached out to physical and occupational therapy professionals and prosthetic companies to research options for Aist.

Haynes presented Aist’s case to Aims colleagues who are responsible for helping students overcome financial obstacles.

“We work with a lot of students, and a lot of appreciative students, and Rudy was one who you remember because of how gracious he was,” said Dana Jones, Aims Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Disability Access Services. “He was blown away.”

The Aims Community College Foundation was established to support students through scholarship development and program support, according to foundation executive director Kelly Jackson, who was also involved in helping Aist.

In a year not affected by a pandemic, Jackson said the foundation might help fewer than 10 students a year. The foundation became aware of Aist’s situation in November, and it was an unusual case.

“He didn’t come to us,” Jackson said. “Outside advocates helped him, advocated for him. What I learned is, if he was able to get the prosthetic, he’d be able to finish his flying time and he’d be an acceptable candidate for certification and employment.”

Aist, a former Greeley resident now living in Fort Collins with one of his brothers, is also an Aims employee. Since August 2019, he’s worked as a dispatcher for the aviation department at Northern Colorado Regional Airport in Loveland.

Jackson said the foundation didn’t write a check for Aist to use for the prosthetic. The money went to Aist’s Aims account while he coordinated and negotiated with his insurance company to use his own money for the prosthetic.

“It genuinely meant the world,” Aist said. “Because of my disability, Eric (Himler, director of aviation) said take all the time you need. They’ve kept me going and kept me here, and because of that support and help and aid, it means the world to me.”

The attachment Aist received last month for his new prosthesis is a hook. As opposed to the claw he previously tried, the hook is better suited to manipulating the flight controls.

“The new device takes the pressure off the hand and puts it on the arm, which can take it,” Aist said. “It’s more comfortable, it fastens more securely and it’s life changing. It’s a game changer.”

As an individual with a disability, Aist has learned to be flexible and adaptable. He skis with one pole. He drives a stick shift. He washes his hair with one hand. He’s learned to ask for help.

Aist won’t be a professionally certified pilot until the Federal Aviation Administration signs off on his qualifications. While other Aims flight students receive certification from the college, the FAA has to approve Aist for flight by issuing a Statement of Demonstrated Ability (SODA).

The medical certification document is used “for certain static defects, but not for disqualifying condition or conditions that may be progressive,” according to the FAA website.

At this point, the FAA would only certify Aist to fly single-engine planes. For Aist to qualify to fly for an airline, he’d have to fly again with an FAA representative and pass tests on bigger aircraft.

Anything seems possible for Aist, though, when it comes to pursuing his passion, a pursuit that has persevered through the countless obstacles he’s had to overcome.

“The adaptability of the human body is incredible,” he said. “It’s fascinating from my perspective that the world is built for using all of your appendages and it’s fascinating to watch people with disabilities figure out their own versions.”

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