VA's Make-a-thon Produces 'Game-Changing' Device for Leg Prosthetics

The winning team at the Veterans Affairs Department’s prosthetics “Make-a-thon” at the VA Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia, display the coupler they designed to permit lower leg amputees to change the bottom part of a prosthesis. (Photo: VA)
The winning team at the Veterans Affairs Department’s prosthetics “Make-a-thon” at the VA Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia, display the coupler they designed to permit lower leg amputees to change the bottom part of a prosthesis. (Photo: VA)

Richmond, Va. -- An Army veteran who lost part of her left leg in Afghanistan worked with a group of medical professionals and students this week in a competition that resulted in what could be a breakthrough for veterans wearing prosthetics.

Lisamarie Wiley -- a 10th Mountain Division soldier who lost much of her lower left leg to a land mine -- was just one of many veterans who took part in the VA's first ever "Make-A-Thon" at the Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Administration Medical Center.

The veterans explained everyday problems they face with missing limbs. The group of students and engineers then spent two days brainstorming design ideas and utilizing 3D printers to manufacture prototypes in a competition for a $20,000 first prize donated by Google, a corporate sponsor.

The VA's Center for Innovation hosted the event with the competition here serving as their first-ever Make-A-Thon. The organizer of the event, Andrea Ippolito, a Presidential Innovation Fellow with the VA, said the VA hopes to host more of the events with a different theme for each. This Make-A-Thon focused on prosthetics. Future events may focus on aging and other challenges.

The winning group designed a 3-piece coupler allowing a lower body prosthesis to be quickly removed and replaced within minutes without having to switch the socket or full prosthetic leg. Called Team Spline, the group was included Mihir Shelke, Jason Suh and Ausvin Khanna, all students from the Green Hope High School Robotics Club in Cary, N.C., their coach, Ty Sayman, Matt Baker, outreach education coordinator from the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, and Matthew Kelly, a nuclear engineer at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Virginia.

For veterans like Wiley, the coupler offers a major reward as well -- making changing her prostheses almost as easy as changing a shoe and no longer having to tote around a half dozen or more complete socket-to-toe prosthetics. Running blade, casual sneaker or dancing shoe ­– whatever – the new coupler means a quick change of the prostheses below the socket.

"This makes more options for me to put underneath my leg," she said late Wednesday afternoon as she chatted with the team members after the competition. "You guys need to talk to the VA prosthetist ... at Walter Reed, who said you let me know what coupler works and we will start developing this in metal."

The Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, DC, has a state-of-the-art 3D printer, capable of turning out metal components. As thrilled as Wiley is that the coupler will improve life for veterans with lower limb amputations, she is looking forward to seeing it get out to the broader world.

"Get that ... and put it under every [lower leg amputee] veteran," she said, "And veterans are going to say, 'my mom's not a veteran, but she needs one, too, because she's diabetic or whatever" and lost her lower leg.

The demand will go beyond VA hospitals, Wiley predicts, especially because the team that created the coupler filed it with the National Institutes for Health as an open source design. According to the NIH, the only legal requirement a manufacture has to meet is crediting the designers.

That means no would-be manufacturer has to pay a company in order to make and sell the product.

Sayman said the new coupling is a simple design, but in terms of how it could affect the manufacture of lower extremity prosthetics, "I think it's game changing."

One VA employee said: "This is something that should have been done a long time ago. It wasn't a problem that was some crazy, complex thing. It was just ... the people in charge of it, of making these things, had no incentive to change."

Judges also issued cash prizes to several other teams for designs they developed during the two-day event.

Camo Cup

These included $1,000 for a "Camo Cup" for people suffering from Dysphagia, a condition making it difficult to swallow. The cup limits the volume of liquid that would come out of a cup when a person drinks from it to no more than 5 milliliters at a time.

Another $2,000 went to a team that designed a glucose testing device that a diabetic veteran with one arm could successfully use with a split-hook prosthetic.

A combination finger cap and wrist pressure glove netted another team $1,000 – the assisting device a glove to help vets with Parkinson's Disease or otherwise suffering from tremors to apply make-up .

Judges awarded $1,000 to a team presenting "Meds to Go," a modified water bottle with a pill-box built into it.

The pill box challenge was taken up by at least two other teams, including one designed by Virginia Commonwealth University student Salman Salman. Another team designed by perhaps the youngest participants at the event: 10-year-old John Button and his sister, Becky Button, 14, Sara Esquela, 15, and Connor Brock, 16, from Caroline County, Va.

Salman's design was of a single upright pill box that included separate chambers for different meds, with a button or plunger atop each to allow for dispensing a single pill.

The Button-Esquela-Brock design was for modular click-pen-like dispensers that could attach or detach from one another. The click-top allowed for a veteran with only one hand to dispense a pill, and put down the pen while taking the medication.

Karima Abutaleb and Mahreen Azam -- both headed into their senior year at VCU -- specifically had in mind the challenge faced by a lab worker who did not have use of one arm but needed to put on and take off gloves for work.

The women designed a stand with a pair of opposing half-circle rims atop columns that could be brought together and then separated via a simple rack-and-pinion mechanism. When brought together the lab glove could be hung through the closed circle and the open wrist-part folded over the rim and held in place.

The halves would then be separated, stretching the glove so that the worker could simply place his hand down into it.

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