New Arm, Same Spirit

updated 02/23/2004 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/23/2004 01:00AM

As a gung ho Hawaiian surfer girl, Bethany Hamilton has always cared more about catching a wave than catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror. But on the way to lunch with pals on Feb. 4, Hamilton stopped to check herself out in a hotel window. "I want to look at my reflection," she said. The girl staring back, famous after surviving a shark attack last October, has looked very different lately: Most notably, there's a $45,000 silicon-and-graphite prosthetic arm that hangs in the place of her lost left limb. The new arm appears, in many ways, like the real thing. "There's even dirt under the fingernails," says Bethany, 14. "That's pretty cool."

Still, she is not completely at ease with her new appendage, which is mostly cosmetic (Bethany can only move it by manipulating it with her other hand), and truth be told, it's a little pale compared to her tanned torso. "She calls it haole girl," says her father, Tom Hamilton, using the Hawaiian term for a white person. An artist at the California offices of Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics Inc. will dye it to better match her skin color in the next couple of weeks. The company is also working on a mechanical arm that, controlled by the nerve endings in the 1½-inch stump she calls "Stumpy," will allow Bethany to grab objects and do two-handed activities. Even that prosthesis won't help her surfing, however, and it won't be ready for another month. "What she has now is a go-to-the-movies, wear-a-long-sleeve-shirt-and-not-be-noticed sort of thing," says Tom.

To make her current prosthesis—which was partially paid for by the Hamiltons' health insurance—technicians took a plaster mold of Bethany's right arm last December then spent a month tweaking the design. Bethany has a teenager's reluctance to discuss her feelings about the new arm, but when she first tried it on, "it was an emotional moment," says Hanger clinical specialist Troy Farnsworth. "When someone sees a replication of the arm they just lost, it can be pretty powerful."

Don't expect Bethany, who has been unfailingly upbeat since the attack, to wallow in drama. Since she received the arm on Jan. 24, she has only worn it around the house, once to lunch and once to the church she attends with her family on their home island, Kauai—in other words, she says, "not enough to feel comfortable." So how does it feel? "It's okay," she says, with characteristic nonchalance, shrugging. "But it's kind of sweaty right now."

J.D. Heyman. Johnny Dodd in Kauai

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