Back in the 1970s two science fiction TV shows were all the rage — “The Six Million Dollar Man, ” featuring an injured test pilot rebuilt with nuclear-powered limbs, and “The Bionic Woman, ” its spinoff, about a woman with cybernetic implants who runs 60 miles per hour.
Medical advances now make these concepts not so far from our grasp. A sector of technology revolutionizing health is in the field of prosthetics, where groundbreaking and increasingly sophisticated 3-D printing is being used to rebuild body parts.
One beneficiary is Shanan LeFeat, a 37-year-old mother of four and Army veteran who is receiving a new prosthetic arm created by industrial design students in Auburn University’s College of Architecture, Design and Construction.
Though LeFeat leads an active life training horses on her farm in Salem, Alabama, she is no longer able to enjoy rifle shooting, kayaking and other activities she once did. But thanks to her new prosthetic arm she can once more play the cello, one of her greatest past loves.
“I often have dreams about playing the cello again, ” says LeFeat, who lost her left arm in a motorcycle accident in 2009, while stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. “It’s absolutely incredible.”
Three seniors in Associate Professor Jerrod Windham’s industrial design class are working on LeFeat’s prosthetic arm: Abby Hinson, of Auburn, Hannah Conrad, of Memphis and Leigh Anne Alfano, of Birmingham. LeFeat admires these young women for “thinking out of the box.”
Hinson says LeFeat had a “ton of ideas” about activities she would like to pursue, from rock climbing to shooting her rifle. She also told the team that she used to play cello, often for hours at a time.
Says Conrad, “Seeing Shanan use our design to play the cello for the first time in 10 years was one of the most joyous experiences, and knowing that my teammates and I are part of her ‘comeback’ is even more satisfying.”
Guy Harrison, Auburn University’s assistant professor of string music education, provided a cello and recital hall for LeFeat to try out her new prosthetic. He is also giving her lessons to reacquaint her with her beloved instrument.
“When we saw Shanan hold that cello and get really quiet and a smile grew on her face, we knew this was the path we had to pursue, ” Hinson recalls.
LeFeat sees this project as an opportunity to help other amputees with similar challenges and hopes.
“Because of her selflessness, we desperately wanted to be able to return the favor and help her accomplish one of the things that had been hard for her, ” says Alfano.
“When we took Shanan to the concert hall and saw her face light up as she held the cello, we knew we had found what we needed to focus on. The most rewarding aspect of this project has been working with Shanan and seeing how much of an impact we as designers can have in someone’s life.”
LeFeat says there has been greater advancement with prosthetic legs than arms, so there is a need for advancement in amputation at her level, which is above the elbow.
Windham says the team is still working to refine the design and will need to work with LeFeat’s prosthetist to fit her with the final solution.
“Shanan has control and motion of her shoulder, ” Windham explains, “and with the right geometry and springs, she can maneuver the bow to each of the strings. As the design is refined, we will look for opportunities to give her more control over the pressure and volume of the sound.”
And she has to learn to play backwards — using her left arm to bow and her right to finger strings, opposite to the ordinary method.
For the past seven years, Windham has been overseeing an assistive technology studio, where students collaborate with other disciplines to design technology for people with disabilities who volunteer to participate.
“Students develop relationships and real empathy with those participants, ” Windham continues. “Assistive technology is often described as technology that ‘levels the playing field’ for people with disabilities. This goes beyond that. It will allow her to pursue an artistic and emotional passion. She has been a joy to work with for all of us, and it is a pretty darn difficult challenge. ”
Hinson says it was daunting at the beginning, knowing nothing about human anatomy or prosthetics. “We had to do a lot of researching and prototyping to get to the point we are now, and there is still a lot of work we have to do.”
Alabama State University’s Department of Prosthetics and Orthotics also helped with the project. Former department head Chad Duncan, now on the faculty at Northwestern University, developed the mold-making process and took the mold of LeFeat’s arm that was used for her shoulder plate.
Upper-level graduate students in the Alabama State program also partnered with the Auburn University team, helping to convey an overall understanding of prosthetic devices, as well as the fabrication process, Windham says.
Technological progress and an increasing consumer base of amputees are bolstering the prosthetics market growth. Windham says 3D printing offers today’s prosthetists two benefits: a significant reduction in fabrication costs and customizable functional details and aesthetics.
According to the Amputee Coalition of America, there are nearly 2 million people living with limb loss in the United States. The organization estimates that there are 185, 000 new lower extremity amputations each year in the United States. The ratio of lower limb to upper limb amputation is 4-to-1. It is projected that the amputee population will reach 3.6 million by 2050.
Windham says there is a great deal of exploration in this area, and 3D printing is evolving and becoming more accessible.
“I believe the important thing is to continue to work with prosthetists to understand and explore the most appropriate uses of the technology. It will not be surprising to me to see prosthetic devices outperform the human body in certain tasks and be so beautiful that they will be considered body art.”
Hinson says their greatest reward is being able to give LeFeat back a part of her life that she lost and believed was unattainable.
“Shanan came to us with an ambitious list of activities that she hopes to return to, but after exploring the multiple ideas conceptually, we agree that her wish to play “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” on the cello was a must, ” Conrad recalls.
LeFeat notes that the popular Charlie Daniels Band tune, which resonates with so many people, requires nimble playing.
“It is typically played on the fiddle, ” says LeFeat. “But if there is a way to learn to play it on the cello, I’m going to do it.”
Jessica Armstrong is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Auburn.
Text by JESSICA ARMSTRONG