Far Out Tech

How a 3-D Printer Just Gave This Little Girl an Awesome, New Prosthetic Hand

How a 3-D Printer Just Gave This Little Girl an Awesome, New Prosthetic Hand
Image credit: AP | YouTube

Faith Lennox was too excited to sleep much on Monday night. The 7-year-old was busy imagining what it would feel like to sport a cool “robohand” where her left forearm and hand had once been. As she lay awake turning over the possibilities, the final pieces of a revolutionary prosthetic were being 3-D-printed for her, layer by layer in her favorite colors, purple, pink and blue. Her new hand was almost ready.

The next morning, with her parents close behind her and before a crowd of reporters, Faith Velcroed her new, plastic arm and hand unit to her biceps. She flexed her new lightweight fingers and scooped up a plush Nemo toy with them, clutching the stuffed animal in her grasp, then triumphantly holding it up.

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“I like it,” she said, shyly smiling amid the flashing cameras. “Thank you, thank you,” she softly repeated.

Thanks in part to the wonders of 3-D printing, the one-pound, easy-to-use prosthetic cost Faith’s family only $50, a fraction of the price of a traditional, electronic sensor-laden prosthetic arm, which typically runs in the tens of thousands of dollars, sometimes up to $40,000. Also due to the amazing advances in 3-D printing tech, the little girl’s new nonelectronic limb was printed and assembled in less than 24 hours. Comprised of metal screws and nuts, and 20 individual 3-D printed hard plastic pieces -- made of a material that hobby drones and small car parts are often made of -- she controls it merely by moving her upper arm up and down.

Witnessing his daughter triumphantly ride her bike, her brand new hand holding the handlebars, Faith’s father, Gregory, 37, an IT professional, was overcome with emotion. “It’s a very, very good day,” he said, “a very emotional day.”

Her makeup artist mother, Nicole, 27, wasn’t surprised to see her courageous daughter test out her new high-tech hardware with such gusto.

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“She put that thing on and just started using it,” Nicole told KTLA5. “She hopped right on her bike and she’s having a blast. “We’re so happy for her.”

Faith, the oldest of three children, was born with a congenital abnormality called Compartment syndrome, the Associated Press reports. Her orientation during childbirth pinched off the blood supply to her forearm, permanently damaging its muscles, bones, blood vessels and nerves. Doctors tried to save the appendage, but, following months of unsuccessful attempts, they made a tough call: Faith’s arm would have to be amputated below the elbow. She was just nine months old.

When she was 3, Faith used a traditional prosthetic hand and electronic arm, but she outgrew the setup after only two years, the Long Beach Press Telegram reports. Her parents told the local newspaper that they didn’t replace the prosthetics after their health insurance company “was hassling them about coverage for a new one.” She’d also tried other conventional prosthetics, but they were too clunky, heavy and difficult to use. So for most of her life, the young Lakewood, Calif., native has simply made do without.

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But she never let being an amputee hold her back. She learned how to do most things one-handed, like washing dishes and braiding her hair (using her teeth).

“It has given her a different kind of confidence, and I love it,” her mom said. “As girls, we all struggle with our own securities. I wanted her to embrace the fact that she’s different.”

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Faith is also a very active, outdoorsy kid, clobbering and catching balls on the softball field and surfing every weekend with her dad. She aspires to be like Bethany Hamilton, a pro surfer who lost her left arm during a shark attack and the subject of the 2011 film Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board.  

All the while, Nicole never stopped searching for a better arm for her daughter. Her quest led her to the Lucky Fin Project, a nonprofit that assists parents whose children are missing limbs. A volunteer from Lucky Fin told her about e-NABLE, another volunteer network that helps kids and adults who need prosthetic arms and hands build or acquire them through 3-D printing. e-NABLE, which claims to have built about 1,000 hands for 700 families so far, offers free, open source 3-D printing design files for prosthetics on its website that anyone can download and customize.

Nicole put Faith on a waiting list at e-NABLE, according to ABC TV affiliate KFCN. Then she heard about a local 3-D printing studio called Build It Workspace from a friend whose son had recently taken a field trip to the Los Alamitos, Calif., startup with his Boy Scouts troop.

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Soon after, Nicole met with e-NABLE volunteer John Wong at Build It Workspace, along with the studio’s owner and founder Mark Lengsfeld, and a plan to print Faith a “robohand” hatched. It wasn’t long before Carina King, an engineering consultant and volunteer at Build It Workspace, tweaked a few e-NABLE designs to build Faith a new arm, the Press Telegram also reports. King’s volunteer work, along with design assistance from California State University, Dominguez Hills, prosthetics professor Mark Muller, saved the child’s family approximately $5,000 in design fees.

“To use the 3-D printing process to help Faith makes me ecstatic,” Lengsfeld told the Press Telegram. “We’re helping her regain more function in her life.”

Faith will likely outgrow the prosthetic in six months to a year, but she won’t have to go without for long, like she did before. A new one can be 3-D printed for her in less than a day, equally as efficiently and inexpensively. She’ll be back on her beach cruiser bike in no time, and, given her spunk, it’ll probably be minus the training wheels.

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Edition: October 2016

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