PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — From the moment he closed the last of the four Velcro straps on his new blue and yellow right arm, 12-year-old Ryan Dean eagerly began exploring what it could do.
Seated at the kitchen table of his Warwick, R.I., home while his mother, Allison Dean, looked on, Ryan grabbed each of the accessories on hand — a small bottle of glue and rolls of extra Velcro and cottony padding — in case any last-minute adjustments to his new arm were required. Not satisfied with merely picking each object up, Ryan quickly moved on to precisely stacking and balancing them in towers to demonstrate his dexterity and his arm’s ability to realize it.
“I think it’s cool,” he said as he played. The arm was, after all, made not only in the colors he requested, but also featured a removable set of claws inspired by the X-men comic character Wolverine.
“You know what you are going to be doing now: dusting, vacuuming,” his mom teased with an intonation that implied a longer list could be forthcoming.
But on that late May afternoon, Ryan seemed more dedicated to playing with his new Wolverine arm than spontaneously leaping to any chores. The custom-fitted, 3-D-printed arm came courtesy of a team of Brown University students, led by biology graduate student Rana Ozdeslik, who visited the Deans’ home that day with engineering undergraduate Abigail Kohler.
Watching Ryan experiment with the Wolverine arm, Ozdeslik said that fun is the point. The arm isn’t a full-fledged medical prosthetic, after all.
“It’s just for them to play,” she said. “It’s kind a toy for them to have fun.”
As Ryan kept picking things up and stacking them, his mother vouched that the arm certainly added something in terms of functionality: “He can do extra things now that he couldn’t do, or couldn’t do easily. For somebody who doesn’t have a hand, that would be amazing.”
Ryan has been adapting to his right arm’s anomaly since birth. He has a shortened forearm with a hint of a wrist. His right hand is not fully formed in that he has four fingers that don’t produce a grasp.
Ryan doesn’t let any of this hold him back. This spring he’s been playing baseball — his favorite sport — for the Giants in the Apponaug Babe Ruth league. He’s a first baseman and an occasional pitcher. Last year he was named an all-star. He also plays soccer and basketball. Sports, he says, are even cooler than the X-Men.
As much as she likes the arm, Allison said it probably won’t help Ryan play baseball.
“He’s so adapted,” she said. “He’s been playing since he was four. It could actually hinder him.”
Though she’s never sought a prosthetic for Ryan, she had been in touch with the Helping Hands Foundation, which builds community and provides support services among families of children with upper-limb anomalies. Early in 2017 she received an email asking if Ryan might want a 3-D-printed arm from students at Brown.
“So I said we’ll jump at it then,” Allison recalled. “It can’t hurt. That’s for sure.”
The Deans have long attended the Helping Hands winter meeting, but at this year’s meeting in Massachusetts, they met with Ozdeslik and early team member Lauren Olinski. Ryan asked for the X-Men styling. The students made some measurements. They pledged to print him a right arm.
Ozdeslik has long been fascinated with the manufacturing technology that allows one to turn spools of colored plastic wire into virtually any object that can be rendered on a computer.
“I’m really interested in 3-D printing,” Ozdeslik said. “There is a great potential in it. I was fascinated with the idea that we can use 3-D printers for the good of the community.”
To her, that meant creating hands and arms for children. When she volunteered to help a local girl named Fiona in Westerly late last year, she also joined e-Nable the Future, which provides designs for 3-D printing arms and hands. Now there is a Brown University chapter.
“We are part of this really great cause,” Ozdeslik said.
Ozdeslik also applied for a maker grant from the Brown Design Workshop, where students can use all kinds of fabrication equipment for academic or personal projects.
“The Brown Design Workshop has so many printers and filament, and they are always open and there to help you,” Olinski said.
For Fiona, the group custom adapted an e-Nable design.
“Her hand was so little that the wrist motion wasn’t enough to move it, so we had to use this elbow motion,” Ozdeslik said. “We wanted to print the fingers with a glowing filament because in the dark, since she doesn’t have the hand sense, she can at least see the fingers moving around.”
Ryan’s arm also glows in the dark. It is assembled from 16 3-D-printed pieces and cleverly placed strings and elastics that allow it to grip when bent.
Working after classes and labs about 5 hours a week, the team, which also included engineering undergraduate Gregory Boudreau-Fine, took about two months to make the arm. That included printing prototype arms to make sure it would work.
During that time, everyone still had coursework. Ozdeslik even defended her thesis. But they delivered the arm as promised in May, a few days before Ozdeslik graduated with the Class of 2017.
About 15 minutes after Ryan started playing with his new arm, his twin brother Josh and younger brother Matthew, 9, joined their mother at the table to watch. A bit later a pair of neighboring girls stopped by and beheld the Wolverine arm, too.
Then the boys’ father, Jeffrey Dean, came to pick them up. It was time to go.
“Do you like it?” Jeffrey asked.
“Yup,” Ryan responded.
That was all Ozdeslik and Kohler had hoped to hear.