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Two Students, One Life-Changing Project

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Two Students, One Life-Changing Project

The time when children approach their teenage years is often full of challenges. But for Austin Shumsky, it has been more than just growing up. His mom would notice her 12-year-old son slipping his underdeveloped left hand in his pocket, hiding it from view.

Born with Poland Syndrome, Austin’s left hand is much smaller than his right one, with fingers that are fused together.

But now, Austin has “an air of confidence” as he sports a 3-D-printed hand created for him free of charge by two University of Oklahoma students, said his mom, Jennifer.

“Aesthetically I think that’s been one of the biggest things for me is to look down that first time and see that he had two hands that were the same size, even though one is obviously not the same,” Jennifer said. “But it’s so similar to an actual hand that even just that aesthetically seeing them the same size was enough to kind of blow me away.”

This project began when Jennifer emailed OU’s Gallogly College of Engineering to ask about the possibility of a prosthetic being created for Austin. Jennifer was put in touch with Dr. Rachel Childers, an assistant professor of practice for the biomedical engineering program.

Dr. Childers, who teaches lab courses, mentioned the project in one of her classes and asked for volunteers. Two biomedical engineering juniors, Amanda Phillips from Rochester, Minnesota, and Emily May from Edmond, Oklahoma, jumped at the opportunity to help create a 3-D-printed hand for Austin. 

For inspiration, Phillips and May turned to the online 3-D printing community, which features a collaborative space where people share a wealth of information, Phillips said. They found a design, the e-NABLE Raptor Hand, that had worked well for other people whom like Austin, have a wrist and palm but just need help with finger flexing, and decided to use it as the base for the prototype. 

The Shumskys came to campus from Oklahoma City to meet Dr. Childers, May, and Phillips and have Austin’s measurements taken. The OU group also asked for input from Austin on the color he wanted the hand to be, and he has already requested an “Iron Man” theme for the next design.

“I’ve been blown away by how responsive they’ve been to him, for his needs, for my needs, just anything,” Jennifer expressed. “Just their willingness to help us has been extraordinary. These are two young women, and thinking back to myself in college, I’m sure they might have other things on their mind, but they’ve opted to take part in this process.”

May and Phillips utilized the 3-D printer in Dr. Childer’s lab and also took advantage of the printers and other tools in the Tom Love Innovation Hub to print and assemble the pieces of the hand. Around Thanksgiving of last year, they presented Austin with the first prototype.

The moment Austin first tested out his new prosthetic not only made an impact on Austin and his mom but also deeply impacted May and Phillips.

“It was so incredible to see him when he put on the hand for the first time and was able to pick up a cup and a ball,” May said. “Seeing his face light up and that he has two hands that are the same size, it’s just really cool.”

Phillips echoed that feeling, saying giving Austin the hand and seeing the look on his face and excitement has been one of her favorite moments of her time at OU.

“He was trying to pick everything up with it right away,” Phillips shared. “It feels really good to help someone who I’m sure has always felt different, and I know how hard that can be because it’s so outward and so physical. We’ve heard that he and his friends love to goof around with it. They think it’s the coolest thing ever, and I’m just so happy I could help provide a young man with such a feeling of acceptance.”

Currently, May and Phillips are working on an improved version of the prosthetic. One adjustment is making the wrist part slimmer in order to better fit Austin’s forearm. They are also incorporating grip adaptors into the design, which will help Austin be able to move the fingers in a more natural motion where one finger will stop when it hits an object, but the rest will keep going instead of them all closing at once, Phillips explained.

"We’ve heard that he and his friends love to goof around with it," Amanda Phillips said. "They think it’s the coolest thing ever, and I’m just so happy I could help provide a young man with such a feeling of acceptance.”

Both May and Phillips plan to continue working with Austin in adjusting his design as needed, and they have also talked about working on research focused on different 3-D printing materials. Additionally, this project may continue to grow even more as Dr. Childers has been contacted about the possibility of hands being made for other children as well, and May said she is excited at the prospect of involving even more OU students in the continuation of this project.

May said Dr. Childers has been “incredible” in providing coaching and facilitating the project while also encouraging her and Phillips to do their own work. Phillips echoed that being part of this collaboration fostered by OU has been “such a gift” and “an amazing opportunity.”

“Obviously we wouldn’t be able to do this without the university staff and faculty and appliances and all sorts of resources, and I definitely have noticed both in this project and a whole bunch of other things, collaboration is definitely emphasized here,” Phillips said. “You never have to go it alone if you don’t want to.”

Thanks to the kindness of two OU students, Austin’s life is forever impacted by that prosthetic he is so proud to wear, removing the habit of sometimes putting his hand in his pocket and hiding part of who he is.

“They see the human aspect of it, and when Austin was able to come and try the hand on, they could see what a difference it made,” Jennifer continued. “There were tears in his eyes and there were tears in mine.”