Lending a Hand: students build prosthetic hand for burn survivor

Updated: Jul. 25, 2017 at 6:52 AM CDT
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MOSS BLUFF, LA (KPLC) - A classroom project is changing the life of a Westlake sixth grader who has no hands. Engineering design students at Sam Houston High School in Moss Bluff are seeing in real-life, how technology and heart can combine to help them lend a hand.

It's summer and school is not in session, but a passion project has Marielle Myers' students back to school on break.

"It's really awesome for the kids, teenagers to be able to work with the children and help them," she said.

Myers' class has built four hands over the past school year, literally lending a hand to fellow students with no hands or missing fingers.

"You get to learn at the same time, while making a difference in the community," said 11th grade student, Matthew Foreman.  "It's really nice to see their faces light up when they have the hand for the first time and they get to use it."
The students get the chance to meet the person receiving the hand and that is what has this group working on their own time to see the project through.

The hand they are building will be going to 12-year-old Bowen Johnson, a sixth grade student at S.P. Arnett Middle School in Westlake.

Bowen was severely burned in a terrible accident in his home's utility room when he was a toddler, nearly dying in the flames that melted the skin off much of his body.

"He kind of snuck in there to get the popsicles, saw the gas can and thought it was a watering can," said Bowen's mother, Eva Fortunato.  "From my understanding, all we can figure out is that he poured it out and I was running the dryer and I think the fumes ignited from the dryer."

Bowen's mother has been by his side for surgery after surgery and skin graft after skin graft.

"Over 30...37 surgeries," said Bowen.

There will be more skin grafts to come and with Bowen's age, customized prosthetic hands are not feasible, as he is still growing and the price tag is astronomical.

"Financially, there was just no way," said Fortunato, "$200,000 for a hand, there's just no way."

Just a few miles away from Bowen's school, this class got wind of his story. They knew they could put their lessons to real world use, building Bowen hands.

"Our hands cost about roughly $80-100 to make, because most of it's 3D printed," said Myers.

These hands are not one size fits all.  They are customized for each person.

"The base hand they have isn't perfect for whichever child," said 12th grade student, Trevor Weidner, "so you have to make modifications, you have to take measurements.  That's why we do the molding."

After a few weeks of molding, printing, and boiling down the hand to shape it, this Spider-Man-themed hand is ready for this real-life superhero.

"Wow! This is cool!," said Bowen, as the students handed him his new hand.

It takes a few minutes to take it all in, with these hand-crafters standing by.

"Cool design!" said Bowen.

The hand has basic functionality: it can open, close, and grip.

"When you bend the wrist, that pulls the fingers," Myers explains to Bowen. 

It takes some tweaks to get it fitting just right and then, it's all about exploring, for this kid who has not had hands for nine years.

"How do you work this thing?" asked Bowen.

Bowen's goal with his new hand is the simplest of tasks for those of us with hands, but something he has not been able to do.

"I want to grip with one hand on a cup," said Bowen.  

"Because right now you'd have to us two?" I asked.  

"Yep," he said.

Maybe one day soon, Bowen will be able to hold a pen with his hand and do schoolwork like his classmates.  It is one of many dreams for his mom, who just wants to see her son soar.

"Just seeing him explore the opportunities with more independence," said Fortunato, "not feeling like he's going to be left out."

A second, more customized hand is in the works for Bowen.

The engineering design students are also going to be creating a partial hand this school year for a girl who is missing a couple of fingers.

The hands are free to the person receiving them, thanks to grants Myers has been given through Northrop Grumman and Walmart.

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