When our veterans return home from fighting for our country, they deserve all of the help we can give them. Top 3D printing solutions company Stratasys has used its innovative technology multiple times to make custom 3D printed prosthetics and orthotics for veterans, even partnering with the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) last year on an initiative to launch one of the first collaborative 3D printing hospital networks in the US.

VA Puget Sound Health Care System

Stratasys worked with the VA Center of Innovation (VACI) to install 3D printers in five VA hospitals across the country, including in Washington and New Mexico. The company recently shared a success story from the initiative, detailing how an occupational certified hand therapist from VA Puget Sound and a rehabilitation engineer from the Albuquerque VA worked together to give a veteran with loss of hand function a 3D printed helping hand.

Mary Matthews-Brownell next to a poster describing her work on 3D printed hand orthoses. She presented at the Annual American Society of Hand Therapists in October of 2017.

Hand therapist Mary Matthews-Brownell has been working with 37-year-old veteran Newton, who was referred to her about six years after complications from combat injuries caused surgeons to amputate his right pinky finger. He was having a hard time holding tools, which was necessary for his job in a warehouse distribution center, and writing legibly, due to muscle spasms and sharp phantom limb pain, so Matthews-Brownell fabricated a hand-based orthotic for him to use.

According to VACI Innovation Specialist Beth Ripley’s Stratasys blog post, “In large part a labor of love, the bending and shaping of a hand orthotic takes time, skill, and an in-depth understanding of human anatomy and the needs of the patient.”

While the hand orthotic kept Newton free from pain while driving, working, and taking care of his kids, the brace wore out quickly and needed to be replaced often, which meant Newton making an appointment, traveling a long way to the VA hospital, and Matthews-Brownell making him a new one. Newton also spends a fair amount of time volunteering in the Philippines, and was concerned about what to do if he damaged an orthotic while far away from the hospital – it would be impossible for him to purchase an off-the-shelf brace to replace his custom orthotic.

That’s when Matthews-Brownell thought about using 3D printing technology as a solution.

“3D printing can be a game changer for the chronic hand problems we see every day here at the VA,” Matthews-Brownell said.

3D printed hand orthotics for another veteran.

She realized that she could save Newton the trouble of continually going to the clinic so she could build him new orthotics by 3D printing him a replica of the existing brace, and contacted Albuquerque-based rehabilitation engineer Ben Salatin, who had plenty of 3D printing experience.

The two used a 3D scanner to make a digital copy of Newton’s existing orthotic, and Salatin took advantage of one of the many benefits of 3D printing – its ability to fabricate objects in one piece – by removing the seams that were susceptible to the wear and tear that damaged the previous versions. Then, he added slots so a more comfortable strap could be used, and improved the overall aesthetic of the brace, before finally 3D printing it, using lightweight material and a smooth finish, on the Stratasys 3D printer at the Albuquerque VA hospital.

Newton wearing 3D printed hand orthosis.

Newton has been wearing the 3D printed hand brace for six months without it breaking, and particularly enjoys the stronger material, lighter weight, and “improved ability to secure the orthosis in place.”

Should he ever require a new orthotic, a new 3D printed one can be mailed to him wherever he is, so he won’t have to waste time driving back and forth to the VA; in addition, this frees up time for Matthews-Brownell to make new orthotics for other veterans. She and Salatin have worked together to make 3D printed orthotics for five additional veterans, which have helped them continue to work and provide for their families, exercise, handle tools to repair a fence, and, in the case of one veteran, reach out and grasp items for the first time in over a year.

This success story demonstrates how experts from different specialties, even when they don’t live in the same area, can collaborate and use 3D printing technology to make someone’s life a little easier. It also shows how 3D printers, rather than replacing skilled hand therapists like Matthews-Brownell, can be used as force multipliers, helping the important work that she does and products she manufactures become more sustainable.

What do you think of this story? Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts in the Facebook comments below.

[Source/Images: Stratasys]

 

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