Although in varying and often quite creative forms, prosthetics have been around for thousands of years, with humans using available materials and even the most rudimentary engineering to increase functionality and mobility to hands and feet. This is an area that has undergone constant evolution, but with 3D printing progress been greatly accelerated, as evidenced by innovative—and surprisingly affordable—prosthetics and orthotics being offered to children all over the world, resulting in inspirational and heartwarming stories spanning from Uganda to Brazil and now, to Exton, Pennsylvania.
The resilience and adaptability of children can be incredibly impressive, and they are quite often able to show adults more than a thing or two as they rise to the challenges of life with missing limbs. And while they may be able to do nearly everything, eventually functionality issues arise motivating them to be open to the idea of a prosthetic that might allow them play video games, sports, grip utensils, and more.
With the options allowed via 3D printing, the customizations according to the child’s needs are virtually limitless. For five-year-old Emmy Hoffman of Exton, PA, being able to ride a bike is a new goal figuring predominantly into the picture as she grows and wants to be doing many of the normal outdoor activities with other kids, including her two older brothers.
Emmy was born with symbrachydactyly, a condition resulting in limb abnormalities and issues. Affecting about 1 in 32,000 births, babies—like Emmy was—may be born with missing or shortened fingers. These children are increasingly seeing the benefits that 3D printing can offer.
“Before you are faced with this situation, ‘normal’ is 10 fingers, 10 toes,” Thomas Hoffman, Emmy’s dad said. “Emmy’s as normal as the other two. She’s just made differently. One son has red hair, the other has blonde; she has a difference with her fingers. My definition of normal has changed.”
Working with Ability Prosthetics prosthetist, Eric Shoemaker—also a family friend—the Hoffman family has been very involved in Emmy’s journey to be fitted with a 3D prosthetic for her right hand. Her mother has even written a children’s book called Emmy’s Amazing Hand, meant to help others understand more about her daughter’s congenital condition.
“The main point of the book is that these kids can do everything,” said Jocelyn Hoffman. “As a parent, that’s hard to picture when they are so tiny.”
As Friday approaches, everyone involved eagerly awaits the arrival of Emmy’s new hand, which will be affording her all sorts of new functionality once her fingers are outfitted with the shell prosthetic over her hand and wrist. And as her mother explains, they do foresee new milestones being achieved—like tying her shoes.
For children, the advent of 3D printed prosthetics offers a number of substantial positive changes, all stemming from the fundamental benefits of this new technology. First of all, the cost, which could have been prohibitive for many previously, is absolutely a fraction of what it was before. A prosthetic hand or arm can cost less than $500, and that’s very exciting news for parents, like those of Emmy, who may previously have been looking at bills in the tens of thousands for replacement limbs. Second, customizations and fittings are much easier and faster, and as the child grows a quick edit to the design and new 3D print mean a new prosthetic for just several hundred dollars—rather than none at all due to lack of funds and constant growth on the child’s part. And last—with innovative designs, materials, and colors, the social stigma dissipates. Other children are curious about these cool hands and arms and a child wearing a prosthetic today can be proud and excited rather than feeling shame and anxiety.
Shoemaker explains that while Emmy has a very functional hand, there are other activities she wants to start participating in and they sought a tool to help her do more. In looking at online designs, they were able to create a prosthetic that Emmy—along with her whole family—is excited about. It should be easy for her to put on and take off, and is a device a five-year-old can easily adapt to.
“This hand is very simple,” Shoemaker said. “When Emmy flexes her wrist, the cables tighten and flex the fingers so the hand closes, and she will be better able to grasp objects.”
Although 3D printing of prosthetics may be a new type of process to be introduced into the offices of many prosthetists, they have already printed more than a dozen of them at Ability, marking a big change for those involved in producing such medical devices. They are able to offer more for patients with such affordability, and in the offices making the prosthetic requires much less labor, effort, as well as storage space with the computer for performing digital design and the 3D printer now just taking up one portion of a desk. Both storage and waste are no longer an issue, and patients are able to play a larger role in deciding how their devices will look and what options they will offer.
Ability specializes in artificial limbs and devices, with offices in Asheville, NC, Raleigh, NC, Charlotte, NC, Greenville SC, Hagerstown, MD, Frederick, MD, Hanover, PA, Mechanicsburg PA, York, PA, and Exton, PA. Isn’t it wonderful what they are doing for Emmy? Discuss in the 3D Printed Hand for Emmy forum over at 3DPB.com.