Two years ago, the Range of Motion Project (ROMP) bought its first 3D printer. There were no projects lined up, there wasn’t anybody who had ever used a 3D printer before, but it seemed like a cool piece of technology, and we wanted to be on the front lines. Two years ago, I first came to ROMP as a volunteer for two short months. I had been given a grant to do work here and help ROMP, yet I felt as if I was gaining all the benefits. I was learning tons about prosthetics, how to fabricate devices, how to speak Spanish, how to run a non-profit, etc. But what was I giving back to ROMP? Sure, I was helping with the administrative stuff here and there, and I guess I helped with patients by providing a second pair of hands (always useful) in the lab, but really, what was I doing?
That’s why I started actively seeking out opportunities or chances to contribute something more.
And that’s where the 3D printer came in. We had one, and we wanted to work with a team who was developing a 3D printed prosthetic hand. I volunteered to build one. A project idea was born.
Going home that day, I was super nervous – what had I just signed up for? I had never seen a 3D printer before, let alone used one, let alone programmed a bionic hand with an Arduino! Could I really do this? Eventually, I found my answer.
I wasn’t sure if I could do this, but I wanted to be able to. Therefore, I would have to be able to.
I strengthened my resolve and asked for permission to take on the project in its entirety. I said I would accomplish it.
The next month, I spent a lot of time ordering components from all over the world, 3D printing all the necessary pieces for the hand, and reading the instructions a lot. With some help, and a Friday-Saturday slumber party of 1 in the office, I was able to finish building the hand and get it moving. What an awesome feeling, what an accomplishment! A small non-profit with limited funds had managed to build a functioning 3D printed, microprocessor controlled robotic hand in a developing country! We weren’t ready to put it on anybody yet, but hey – baby steps are still steps!
One year ago, I was fortunate enough to return to ROMP, but this time I had graduated to a full-time employee. I was in charge of the recently acquired technology development lab (devLab), here in Quito. A matching one had been set up in our Guatemala clinic already, and it had been put to some use with another 3D printed hand design team from Canada. I had all of this new technology, all these new machines, but we still weren’t really sure what we were going to do with them.
We tried a fundraising-focused approach; we used the lab as a type of business, advertising our printing and scanning services and/or classes to the general public to make money. While we did succeed in profiting since its inception, it took a lot of time and effort. And sure we were building a maker community in the capital of Ecuador in the middle of South America, but we weren’t really helping that many amputees. Our profits would only fund an average of 1 device every two months. Considering that our team in Guatemala fits new devices to almost 20 patients per month, things were moving too slowly. So we decided to shift our perspective.
I started devoting more of my time and energy into prosthetics projects. Finding them, acquiring interest and help from other groups, and implementing them became my main priority. And that’s when the magic started to happen.
We 3D printed the first leg in South America. We put together a prosthesis for a transhumeral patient in a few days with 4 separate 3D printed components that made it possible to have a functioning device instead of a bunch of broken pieces. We printed Victoria hands in both our devLab locations, delivering 6 of them to patients in Guatemala and Mexico. We got beta access to revolutionary 3D modification software. We 3D printed and fit the first sockets of their kind, ever. And then we stuck myoelectric sensors in them and tested that.
Over the past three months, we have made more progress in the field of 3D technology in the field of O&P than we ever could have imagined when we started. And what excites me are the possibilities that lie ahead, that I can’t even imagine now. All I know is that it’s promising, and it’s going to be exciting. And now, with faith and investments of time and money into technology and development, ROMP will be at the center of this revolution in the field. These types of advances already make access to high quality care more robust and worldwide. Amputees who didn’t have an option for care before, soon will.
Sometimes I think it can be hard to take your eyes off the current problem long enough to see a farther-reaching solution or potential right now, because the problem does exist right now and you want to help right now. But to have the patience and ability to continue to serve our patients while simultaneously investing in new, farther reaching solutions to the problem of inequity of care – THAT takes guts. That involves risk. That involves trading immediate pay-off for future pay-off.
Today, I’m starting to see it. It’s starting to pay off.