CHAMPAIGN – A team designing low-cost prosthetic arms for people in developing countries got a firsthand view of their needs during a 10-day trip to Guatemala in July.
Four members of the IPT team – all University of Illinois students – visited the Range of Motion Project clinic in Zacapa, Guatemala, where they fitted patients with the specially designed prosthetic arms.
"They were some of the most patient and hopeful people I ever met in my life," said team member Jonathan Naber. "They wanted to help out in the product development process."
Naber said he was pleased with what patients could do, once fitted with the arms.
"One wrote his name twice with a Sharpie," said the 21-year-old senior in materials science and engineering. "Another was able to tie his shoelaces with the prosthetic arm."
The team worked with seven patients, ranging from a 6-year-old girl to a 43-year-old man, Naber said.
The patients included students, peanut field workers and people unable to work as a result of their disability.
Two had lost use of their arms from electrical accidents, another from a machete attack. One person had a congenital defect. Two others were injured when the truck in which they were riding tipped over.
Naber's team took eight prosthetic arms of three different designs. One design stressed utility and was geared to agricultural labor. Another was lighter and could adjust dynamically to what remains of the patient's arm. A third was lightweight but still suited for agricultural work.
All of the designs were mass-producible, adjustable in length and diameter and "open" so that the skin could breathe and the wearer could remain comfortable.
Naber said the team asked patients what they liked and didn't like about the designs.
"Right now we're analyzing all the patient survey data and all the lessons learned," he said.
The team will launch its next phase of product development this summer and fall, with hopes of conducting more field tests during winter break.
Naber said most patients they worked with already had a prosthetic arm. The patients agreed to take part in the fittings because "they hoped we could develop something better for them." The Guatemalans didn't keep any of the prosthetic arms IPT designed, however.
"We felt it was a bad idea to leave prosthetic arms with them," Naber said, noting that the team hasn't had a chance to fully develop the designs.
"If you give people something that doesn't work, it may turn them off from ever wanting to help again," he said.
Joining Naber on the trip to Guatemala were fellow team members Hari Vigneswaran, Adam Booher and Ehsan Noursalehi, all of whom will be UI seniors this year. Two other members of the team – Luke Jungles and Richard Kesler – did not make the trip.
Patients were asked what tasks they'd like to do, and five of the seven said they wanted to play soccer, Naber said. But without two functional arms, they were afraid of falling on their face while playing.
"Other things they mentioned were going to the bathroom by themselves and doing schoolwork," he said. "Turning the pages of a book can be challenging."
Others said they wanted to button their shirts and fasten belts.
The Range of Motion Project clinic was started by UI alumnus David Krupa, a prosthetist who serves as a volunteer director for the project. The clinic is about a 3- 1/2-hour drive from Guatemala City, Naber said.
The IPT team – formerly known as the Illini Prosthetics Team – won the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Illinois Student Prize for the business idea last spring. The team then applied for a Clinton Global Initiative University grant and received $4,000 to go toward developing prototypes.
Money from the Illinois Launch program on campus paid for team members' flights to Guatemala, and Otto Bock HealthCare covered the cost of prosthetic hooks, Naber said.
Naber said the team hopes to hold a fund-raising event in connection with the Range of Motion Project this fall, but details have yet to be determined.
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