LMU student uses 3-D printing to make low-cost prosthetic hands for local children

12/13/2017

It was the present he’d most anticipated. And it didn’t fit. But Christopher Olvera, 7, had waited months for his hand. What were a few more minutes?

The prosthetic hand, printed on a 3-D printer and assembled by first-year medical students at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, was a little tight on Christopher’s left wrist. Born without fingers on that hand, Christopher uses his left hand to steady objects and push buttons – but he wanted a way to hold things and pick them up.

That’s why assistive technology specialist Janice Reece, who serves eight school districts in four counties though the Little Tennessee Valley Educational Cooperative, recommended Christopher, a second-grader at Loudon Elementary School, to LMU student Cole Carter.

Last year, Carter, then a master’s-level anatomy student at LMU, learned about the national nonprofit group e-NABLE, a group of volunteers made up of engineers, scientists and others with a common goal to provide low-cost, durable prosthetic hands to those who might use them.

With open-source software available and Mark McFall of Knoxville’s 3Dimension Design volunteering to print the first few – about an eight-hour process per hand – Carter contacted Reece and met with Christopher and another student, 11-year-old Macy Presley, a fifth-grader at Philadelphia Elementary School whose left hand never developed.

Both got excited when he showed them sample hands made of light, durable, biodegradable plastic using Velcro straps, fishing wire, elastic dental bands and foam padding – “stuff you can buy at Walmart,” Carter said.

On Saturday, Carter and fellow students Richard Kim and Neal Fischer spent upwards of 10 hours assembling the hands, in between studying for their final medical exam of the year, and then he traveled from LMU to Loudon County Tuesday to present them.

That’s how Christopher ended up in an unused classroom with four news cameras trained on him as he anxiously and patiently watched Carter use snips and a heat gun to widen the bright-red hand, which was a little too small at first.

The fingers on the prosthetic hand flex when Christopher moves his wrist. With a little practice, he was soon stacking nearby objects – a box, a glue stick, a water bottle, a can of WD-40 – with a reserved but satisfied smile.

But it wasn’t until a few of his classmates entered to check out the new hand that the cameras captured that hoped-for happy face.

“That is SO COOL! That is SO CREEPY!” fellow second-grader Angie Gonzolez told Christoper as he flashed her a wide grin. “It’s like an alien hand!”

“Give me a high five!” she told him, then shrieked and jumped back from the hand as Christopher laughed.

Reece said when Christopher started school at Loudon, “we universally adapted the classroom” – chunky crayons, spring-loaded scissors.

“The other kids loved them, but he wouldn’t touch them,” she said. “He wanted to be like everybody else.”

Yet Christopher’s father said that, in spite of his son’s determination to tackle any challenge, he felt like “he needed something there” where fingers would have been. The bright-red hand – his color choice – fills that bill, and Reece will help him master its operation, she said.

It’s not common for children to get prosthetic hands, Reece said: “They’re so cost-prohibitive, you just don’t find insurance companies wanting to cover them. They grow out of them so quickly.”

But the cost of making the 3-D printed hand is $100 or less, Carter said, and he expects to be able to make Christopher a series of them as he grows.

That’s what he’ll be doing with Macy, the Philadelphia, Tenn., fifth-grader. The 11-year-old had hoped to be able to show off a new gold-and-purple plastic hand to teammates in her basketball game Tuesday afternoon.

Because she was born without a left wrist or hand, however, Macy’s prosthetic had to be fitted to her elbow, so that the fingers flex when she moves her forearm – and the piece that needed to fit her elbow was just too small this time.

“It’s a learning curve,” Carter said. “It takes trial and error.”

Carter promised Macy she’d have a new hand to try shortly after the new year, as she fielded questions about what she’d use it for.

Was she excited to dribble a basketball or shoot hoops with her left hand? “I can already do that,” Macy said, dismissively -- then demonstrated.

Swing a softball bat for games this spring? “I can already do that, too,” she said.

But “being able to grip” with her left arm, on which she’d drawn a smiley face just above where her hand would be, will be an improvement, she said. She’s looking forward to being able to hold objects and use scissors more easily, too, and says she’d like to work as a nail tech someday.

Macy’s father, Dewayne Presley, said “no one around here made them” when the family investigated prostheses when she was young.

“She’s always wanting to do something new,” he said.

Carter said he’s researched a better design for Macy's next hand. LMU has given him a research fellowship with which to buy his own 3-D printer for the project, and he recently won part of a Google grant given to e-NABLE to purchase software to measure the activity on children who use the hands, giving him scientifically measured data on how they use them and whether their activity levels improve.

Carter, 27, said he wants to practice physical medicine and rehabilitation and expects to work with people using prostheses as part of his career.

He’s excited about the rapidly changing technology; a Japanese company recently released open-source software anyone can use to create an electronic prosthetic hand that moves automatically, triggered by the firing of muscles in the forearm.

Such devices cost “tens of thousands of dollars” now, he said, but this one can be made for about $500 – so, by the time Christopher is Macy’s age, he may have one of those.

“This is the way the wind is blowing,” Carter said.

Source:  Knoxville News Sentinel, by Kristi Nelson

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