Noah’s FLASHY new hand
By Will Sansom
Like any kid, Noah Gutierrez wants to be cool. He also wants to be super-fast, just like his favorite lightning-quick superhero, the Flash.
Noah, who’s 11, hasn’t let anything slow him down, despite being born with only the thumb on his right hand. He’s adapted well to using the thumb as a post and working around the nonfunctional finger nubs on that hand.
But necessity is the mother of invention, Plato said. Accordingly, a new use for three-dimensional (3-D) printers is the printing of prosthetic devices for patients like Noah.
When Noah saw a story on TV about a 3-D-printed hand helping a young girl, it sparked his curiosity to see if he, too, could benefit.
“It was something that I looked forward to,” Noah said. “I thought that maybe I can do some things I haven’t been able to do.”
Noah and his mother, Larissa Gilmette, visited the Orthotics/Prosthetics Clinic of UT Health Physicians to ask if a prosthetic hand could be printed for him.
There they met Jesse Rettele, L/CPO, a clinical instructor of rehabilitation medicine in the Joe R. & Teresa Lozano Long School of Medicine and medical director of the Orthotics/Prosthetics Clinic. He accepted the challenge.
Prostheses fill in what a person is missing. In Noah’s case, could an appliance be printed to simulate both the flexibility and grip of real fingers? Rettele partnered with Sam Newman, a medical 3-D animator at UT Health San Antonio.
The biggest challenge with conventional 3-D-printed hands is discomfort, so Newman took a scanned image of Noah’s hand and merged those specifications with a 3-D-printed hand template in his computer. He then scaled down the size of the fingers to match Noah’s other hand.
The “hand” is actually a system of connected parts—plastic knuckles and fingers, durable straps, rubber hinges, flexible cables and traction pads. This custom invention is secured to Noah’s wrist and fits over his undeveloped fingers.
“The 3-D-printed hand utilizes the motion at the wrist to control the fingers,” Rettele said. “Flexible cables pull the fingers closed when the wrist is flexed. The fingers automatically extend back open when the user’s wrist is relaxed.”
The four prosthetic fingers move together at once and bend in the anatomically correct places, allowing the fingers to grasp objects, Rettele said.
Dacron straps, made from the same material as seat belts, are used to anchor the prosthesis to Noah’s hand. Noah can fine-tune the straps’ tightness based on the task he is doing—looser for light work such as brushing his teeth or combing his hair, tighter for heavy-duty activities such as riding his bike or lifting weights.
Someday, he hopes, he’ll climb monkey bars on the playground with his friends.
“This has been a dream of Noah’s for a very long time,” his mother said.
The hand, printed in red, is accented by a Flash lightning bolt that Newman painted.
“The hand is futuristic-looking and fun, with the look and design expressing Noah’s personality and interests,” Rettele said. “Instead of trying to hide his hand, he may actually want to show it off.”
The entire prosthesis weighs about 7 ounces—less than half the weight of a traditional prosthetic device. It’s customized for comfort and function, whereas most hand prostheses are not. And it cost only $60, compared to $4,000 to $5,000 or more for traditional hand prostheses, Rettele said.
Best yet, if anything breaks, everything can easily be rebuilt.
“We have the file on a computer, so I’ll just send it over to the printer and make another one,” Newman said.
The prosthesis has given Noah a new confidence, his mother said, and the lightning bolt reminds him every day to work hard. “It just inspires me to do certain things that I wasn’t able to do before,” Noah said.
That includes a career as a game programmer when he grows up.
“Noah’s new hand has really helped him, not only physically but mentally,” his mother said. “I can see how much his confidence has grown, and how much it has helped his self-esteem. He really wants to meet other kids like him, and let them know it is OK to be different.”
And, just like the Flash, Noah said, “I want to encourage them not to give up.”