Danielle Fairchild, 9, grabbed a juice box and took a sip from the straw. Looking on was her brother, Christopher, 11, wide-eyed and sporting a beaming smile. As she finished her drink, her brother pumped his arms and cheered with excitement as she radiated with pride.
It was the first time Danielle had used her new right hand.
The siblings and another child, Elise Straight, 7, were the first beneficiaries of a project started by an O’Fallon girl studying chemical and biological engineering at the University of Alabama.
Valerie Levine, a 2014 O’Fallon Township High School graduate, started the Alabama Prosthetic Project in the summer of 2016, which uses 3-D printers to craft artificial limbs for kids in need — free of charge.
“Without a designated biomedical engineering program at the university, this was an area that had not yet been worked on at the University of Alabama. It also combined my interests in 3-D printing, polymers, and prosthetic design in a way that could provide children with prosthetic devices,” said Levine, who also helped found the Future Science Professionals club at OTHS and now boasts more than 50 members.
By using 3-D printers to create them, the prosthetics are low-cost and often fit better than for patients who may not otherwise be able to afford or have access to other devices.
“I was really impressed with Valerie’s idea to use the printers to build prosthetics,” said Jason E. Bara, University of Alabama associate professor and faculty adviser to Levine. “I pretty much allow my students to work independently on the 3-D printers and come up with creative ideas. So Valerie definitely took advantage of a resource available to her and put it to good use.”
But while Levine had the engineering idea down, what she needed was a medical partner. She found Dr. Joshua Ratner, of the Hand and Upper Extremity Center of Georgia, and Colleen Coulter, a physical therapist and team leader of the Limb Deficiency Program Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
“Colleen Coulter has been instrumental in our success with this project and ensuring that we continue to improve the design of the prosthetic and are able to provide prosthetic devices to children in the Atlanta area. Additionally, we work with Karen McCormack and Dr. Jean Oakes at Children’s Hospital of Alabama. They have helped us improve our design, as well,” said Levine, who is interning this summer at the Polymat Basque Center for Macromolecular Design in San Sebastian, Spain.
In February, Danielle, Christopher and Elise were the first children to benefit from Levine’s initiative.
Dr. Dale Fairchild, the mother of Christopher and Danielle, said her kids were “skeptical at first” about the idea of a prosthetic. “They have adapted to life without a second hand,” she said.
But once they were fitted, any doubt was quickly shattered by their new-found grip. Everything within reach was soon in their clasp to explore the limits of their new limbs.
“They were really kinda of surprised by it all,” said Coulter, who was also present for the fitting.
Levine said it was fulfilling to see the kids test their new potential.
“I had been working on the project for many months, improving the design so the devices would be the most comfortable and durable that I could make them, prior to the fitting,” she said.
But this was not the end. Levine — with the kids’ help — continues to work on perfecting her creations.
“The 3-D hands fit each of them differently. They worked with the team and gave suggestion on how to make them function more effectively,” Dale Fairchild said.
Coulter said she recalled Christopher being very curious and helpful during the fitting process.
“He was really great. He took right to it. These 3-D printed limbs are kind of crudely fit, but he immediately started putting padding in it so it would fit more snugly. He was quite inventive, really,” said Coulter, who had never worked with 3-D printed prosthetics before but was impressed afterward.
“These are pretty cool, and it went great for a first-time fitting,” she said. “It’s a great precursor of sorts, a good tester to see if the child will be a good candidate for a more permanent prosthetic limb later in life. So it’s a great evaluation tool in the very least, but also helps improve the child’s quality of life as a whole.”