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With 3-D printing technology,  students create new hand for girl

South Boston News
Abby Lammerts practices picking up a ball with her new hand, created by students at the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center in South Boston. The appendage is made primarily out of plastic and consists of many tiny moving parts that all fit together in an elaborate puzzle. (Brittany Hughes/Danville Register & Bee) / December 16, 2013
Danville Register & Bee
Reprinted with permission

SOUTH BOSTON — Gripping a handle, picking up a ball, holding a hair brush — these are movements most people do a thousand times a day without even thinking about it. But for 12-year-old Abby Lammerts, these simple tasks have been virtually impossible.

Until now.

Abby was born with a spinal condition called “syringomyelia,” as well as defects in her hands and face. The fingers on her left hand were completely fused together, while the bones in her right were present but didn’t connect properly.

Abby underwent seven surgeries before her fourth birthday, most of which were reconstructive procedures. Still, her mother, Amy Hudson Lammerts Cole, said Abby never let her physical differences hold her back.

“She’s had her challenges. But we always told her she’s no different than anyone else, so that’s what she grew up believing,” Cole said. “She never let it get her down. If anything, she used it as motivation to push even harder.”

But the deformities in her hands still made it difficult for Abby to do certain tasks, such as playing the trombone, riding a bike and brushing her hair. It was a part of life that she, and her parents, simply accepted as reality.

“We’d looked into prosthetics before,” said Amy, who is the director of student services at the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center in South Boston. “But we’d always been told that the most they could do was make an aesthetically-pleasing hand that would look good, but wouldn’t really have any function.”

Then, about six weeks ago, a friend of Amy’s forwarded her a link to a story she’d seen on CBS about a 12-year-old boy in Massachusetts with almost the exact same hand deformity as Abby. The boy’s father had used a 3-D printer called a “MakerBot” to manufacture a functioning, detachable hand for his son.

“I saw that and immediately thought, ‘I wonder if we could do that!’” Amy said, recalling her excitement at the possibility of giving her daughter the one thing she never thought she’d have.

Amy pitched the idea to her husband, Ronnie Cole, who is an instructor of high performance technology at Southside Virginia Community College. Ronnie also teaches a dual-enrollment program for 11th and 12th graders at Halifax County High School.

Ironically, Ronnie had just purchased a 3-D printer during the summer to use in his classroom.

“He told me that yeah, he could do that easily,” Amy said. “So I said ‘OK, let’s do it.’”

Within the space of a few short weeks, Ronnie led a team of 18 students from Southside Virginia Community College, Danville Community College and Halifax County High School on a mission to create a functional mechanic hand for his daughter. The project took between 40 and 50 hours, and involved tweaking some pre-existing diagrams and custom-designing several components of the hand.

The hand, which is made primarily out of plastic, consists of many tiny moving parts that all fit together in an elaborate puzzle. The fingers are controlled by five plastic strings that cross the back of the hand and attach to the base of the wrist, pulling much like the strings on a guitar, Ronnie explained. Abby would be able to pull and retract the mechanical fingers simply by flexing her wrist.

“It took a lot of trial and error, because we were working with about 80 percent of the instructions,” he said. “We actually had to design a few of the parts, and figure out what worked and what didn’t.”

Throughout the process, Amy said Abby was kept completely in the dark.

“We didn’t want to say anything to her and get her hopes up, in case we couldn’t do it,” Amy explained.

Finally, after several weeks of tinkering and tweaking, it became clear that the process was going to work. Only a few short weeks before Christmas — and Abby’s birthday on Dec. 21 — Amy and Ronnie told their daughter what they’d done.

“She was just so excited, she couldn’t believe it,” Amy remembered. “She just kept asking, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure?’”

Danielle French, one of the students who worked on the project, said she was excited to finally be able to give Abby the hand she’d been born without.

“When Mr. Cole came and asked us to do this for his daughter, we were like oh yeah, we all want to help!” recalled French, who said she wants to be a biochemist.

“It feels really good, you know, because you’re doing it for someone who really needed it,” she added.

As the only girl working on the team, French had added her own touch — even painting blue polish on the mechanical hand’s fingernails.

“I think this technology is so great today, because if we didn’t have this, we would never have been able to help her,” she explained.

With her new hand, Abby is now able to grip and hold small objects that used to be difficult, if not impossible, to grasp.

Her favorite part so far, she said, is being able to ride a bike.

“It feels really great,” she said. “I’m just so thankful for the students, and for my dad, who really is the one who made this all happen, and made this possible for me.”

Working with machines and building 3-D objects is a regular part of Ronnie’s job as a professor. But seeing his daughter’s face light up as she uses her new “fingers” is what it’s all about, he said.

“Just being able to watch her and know that it makes her happy … it makes it all worth it,” Ronnie said. “That’s all I really wanted.”

Ronnie added the hand is only the first model he wants to make for Abby. The current hand attaches to Abby’s hand by a strap; the next one, Ronnie said, will be custom-made to fit on her wrist and forearm. He also wants to add a detachable stylus to one of the fingers so Abby can use her touch-screen phone.

Ronnie said he wants to use what he and his team have learned from this experience to help others in the region who may be struggling with physical limitations. He’s looking into starting a non-profit group to build things like hands and other tools for those who need them — including at least two other local children who have deformities like Abby’s.

“You’re really only limited in what you can make by your imagination,” Ronnie said. “So with this technology, who knows what we could do? Just about anything.”

But for Abby, who beams and poses for a photo with the students who gave her a new hand, it’s already more than enough.

Hughes reports for the Danville Register & Bee.

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