Sarah Tuberty, 27, was born with a left palm that was a third of the size of her right one and was missing all five fingers. She became a patient of Shriners Hospitals for Children — Northern California when she was 1, and underwent two reconstructive surgeries.
The first surgery transplanted toe bones to her pointer, middle and ring fingers. The transplant was successful in her pointer finger. At the age of 5, Tuberty’s surgeon, Michelle James, M.D., cut a space between her first metacarpal and second metacarpal on her left hand, ultimately creating a thumb to allow for a simple pinching grasp.
The surgery changed everything. Instead of having to use her arm or elbow to hold things, she could now play with Barbie dolls and Legos two handed. She could grip pencils. As she got older, she could loop a shopping bag around her left thumb, kayak and hold a steering wheel with her left hand.
Tuberty, a Vacaville native and Vacaville High School graduate, kept returning to Shriners as a volunteer. Her experiences inspired her to pursue a career in occupational therapy.
The hand team at the Northern California Shriners Hospital invited Tuberty to be a counselor at Camp Winning Hands in Livermore, a camp for children with upper limb differences. She has volunteered there since its inception eight years ago.
Her volunteer experience and keen interest in health care inspired Tuberty to study biology at St. Mary’s College of California. After graduating she became an American Airlines flight attendant. Stationed on the East Coast for work, she volunteered at the Shriners Hospital in Philadelphia.
There, a seemingly simple assignment made all the difference. The therapists were overwhelmed with patients and asked Tuberty to help an 8-year-old girl in a wheelchair frost cookies she had baked that morning. The assignment wasn’t so simple for Tuberty. The cookies were so small that she kept dropping them from her left hand. After she finished helping the girl frost the cookies, Tuberty returned to her child life supervisors and asked what department she had just worked in. Occupational therapy, they said.
“All these lights went off; this is exactly what I wanted to do. I realized I could use my hand as a way to connect with future clients,” said Tuberty, who is enrolled in an occupational therapy degree program at Boston University, expecting to graduate in 2019. She works as a flight attendant during summer and winter breaks and is doing her occupational therapy field work at the Boston Shriners Hospital. She hopes to one day work as an occupational therapist at Shriners Hospital.
Tuberty loves the Shriners Hospital model of supporting patients physically, mentally and emotionally, while pushing them to be as independent as possible.
“All the employees are dedicated to helping the kids,” she says. “I feel like they all have really big hearts.”