The moment Jason Woodle first saw his newborn son in the delivery room, his immediate gut reaction was to count the boy’s fingers and toes. The quick scan revealed something unusual.
“I looked at the attending pediatrician and I said, I think we have some missing digits here,” Woodle, who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, told TODAY. “It was quite a surprise for everyone in the room… it was actually quite unnerving.”
Baby Connor was born in 2012 without his thumbs, a rare condition called thumb aplasia that affects about one out of every 100,000 infants. The exact cause is a mystery.
While a missing finger or two might not sound like a big deal in the full spectrum of birth defects, Woodle and his wife worried about what it would mean for Connor’s future.
“My first thoughts were: How is he going to be able to function in the world? Everything from five-fingered gloves to being able to reel in a fishing rod to being able to play a video game,” he said. “Even something as simple as hitting a space bar on a keyboard – we take our thumbs for granted.”
Indeed, the opposable thumb is a marvel of anatomical design, allowing us to grasp and hold things, and giving us the ability to pinch and grip. Try opening a bottle or tying your shoes without it and you quickly realize its worth.
As he grew, Connor learned to pick up objects between his index and middle finger, crab-like, Woodle said.
People can obviously survive without thumbs, but even simple tasks become very challenging, said Dr. Bobby Chhabra, an orthopedic surgeon and co-founder of the University of Virginia Hand Center. Certain genetic disorders can cause deformities in the hands of a fetus, which develop in the first two months of a pregnancy, he said.
“It’s very unusual to have a child born without both thumbs and still have four, fully-functioning normal other fingers,” Chhabra noted about Connor’s case.