You have to start somewhere
One thing to know about Rachel Stoddard ’17 is that she’s driven. She graduated with an exercise physiology major in December in only five semesters. She plans to earn a master’s degree in prosthetics and orthotics and eventually a Ph.D. in rehabilitation science. In preparation, she’s completed two internships, the first at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where she observed work in traumatic brain injury, physical and occupational therapy, service-dog training, and prosthetics and orthotics. Her second internship was at Limb Lab, a boutique prosthetic and orthotic company cofounded by Brandon Sampson ’98.
For her senior project at Luther, Stoddard received a $500 grant from the college’s Scholars program to build a myoelectric elbow. She wanted to learn how muscle contractions can control a prosthesis through electrodes. So she papier-mâchéd a friend’s shoulder and used a servo motor for the elbow joint. The forearm was a water bottle, the hand a gardening glove stuffed with paper towel. The whole thing was painted beige to appear more lifelike. “It was a very rough prototype,” she admits. “I just wanted it to look like an elbow that functions.”
And function it did. When Stoddard flexed her bicep, the electrodes hooked up to it signaled her prototype to bend its elbow. For a 19-year-old working alone, it was no small feat. But Stoddard was about to discover what she could do with a team of specialists on her side.
You have to start somewhere, part II
When you walk into Limb Lab in Rochester, Minn., it’s hard to believe that the forebears of modern prosthetists were blacksmiths. These blacksmiths and armorers fashioned hinged iron limbs that could manage reins or hold a shield so that fighters could keep serving the crown. Likewise, it was war—the First World War—that brought about the mass production of artificial limbs to supply all the soldiers who had lost theirs.
But you don’t see those roots of the trade in the high-tech Rochester Limb Lab. The prosthetics and orthotics that Limb Lab offers are not blunt instruments, nor are they mass-produced. Each is made to order, tailored to specific bodies, and designed to accomplish tasks important to the individuals who will use them.
Most Limb Lab clients are directed there by physicians, often from Mayo Clinic. The first thing Sampson and his team ask is what the person wants to accomplish. Limb Lab’s clientele are boaters, hikers, sportsmen, and sportswomen. They ride bikes, work on farms, and swim in open water. They walk and run and eat and cook and do laundry and parent and grandparent. And their new limbs or orthotic braces allow them to do these things more easily.
One recent patient, Zach Sievert of Deleon Springs, Fla., sustained a motorcycle accident that severed 90 percent of his arm. The injury required nerve and muscle transplants and left him with almost no use of his left arm, hand, or fingers. Limb Lab fitted him with a myoelectric orthotic device that fits over the arm. Three weeks after bringing it home, he could use it for only 20 or 30 minutes before getting fatigued, but was excited about its potential.
“I’m seeing progress with it already,” he reported. “Soon I’ll be able to grab things, pick up drinks, shut doors, turn off light switches, carry laundry baskets, fold clothes. It completely brought back the use of my left arm. I went from nothing—literally nothing, just a dead and limp arm—and now I’ll be able to get some use out of it. It gives you hope. Mentally, it really helps.”
Limb Lab loves Luther
In distinctly Luther style, Sampson has hired not one but two Luther graduates, Andrew Nelson ’13 and Trent Kerrigan ’13, both in the residency period of Century College’s prosthetics and orthotics program in White Bear Lake, Minn. Nelson and Kerrigan checked out the prosthetics field at the suggestion of their Luther academic advisers, which is also how Sampson came to it.
Sampson had been seriously injured in a farm accident as a child. His hand required nine surgeries, and the experience started him thinking about a career in orthopedic surgery. At the same time, his physical therapist suggested he take up guitar to promote dexterity and healing, which led to a lifelong love of music. “I chose Luther because I could do both those things,” he explains. “I could start on a pre-med track, and I could still participate in music and sports. But as time went on, it became clear that there were those students who just have a passion for medicine, and it also became clear what that would look like in my life, where that’s kind of the thing you do.”
His adviser noticed Sampson’s diverse interests and said, “You remind me of this guy who makes artificial limbs, Doug Sand ’85.” So Sampson shadowed Sand at Prosthetic Laboratories of Rochester for two days. “And I absolutely fell in love with the work,” he says. “Because I could still help people. I could be creative and artistic, and I love building things and making stuff that never existed before, whether it’s an impeccable limb or a relationship or a song. It really fits this creative lifestyle.”
After earning a degree from Century College and working his way up in the field for 15 years, Sampson and his three business partners saw an opportunity, he says, “to create a fresh approach to what it means to wear a prosthesis and what it means to re-create yourself after a life-changing event like an amputation.”
So they created a space that feels like an art studio, with giant windows looking onto the workroom where the limbs are created and patients get fitted. “For years, this profession has been in the background, hidden in some dirty corner of a building, and no one knows where it is,” Sampson says. “And at the same time, there’s a staggering statistic: one out of every 200 people in the U.S. wears a prosthesis. So we decided to put it on display, to take the stigma away. We put prostheses on mannequins right out on Broadway, the busiest street in Rochester, and we removed the secrets. We want this to feel like an open, collaborative effort between people who need our services, their physicians, and our work team.”
In the three years it’s been in operation, Limb Lab has grown from one location to four, from four employees to 22. They’ve served 3,250 patients from 44 states and 8 countries.
A match made at Limb Lab
As a high schooler already interested in prothestics, Stoddard made the four-and-a-half-hour trek from her home in Tower, Minn., to tour the Rochester Limb Lab. When she received one of Luther’s summer research grants last spring, she knew she wanted to use it to 3-D print a myoelectric hand—one that didn’t rely on paper towels and gardening gloves. Meanwhile, Limb Lab had just bought its first 3-D printer. It was a perfect match.
Stoddard and her Limb Lab mentor, David Coleman, decided to purchase and print an Ada Hand kit from Open Bionics, an open-source bionic-hand company based in the UK.
But just because they had the print schematics doesn’t mean the project was easy. The design was new, and it had a lot of errors. They had to print the palm five times and the back plate four times before they got the printer settings right. In addition, Rachel worked with the programmer through dozens of emails to smooth out kinks in the coding. And the wiring had been designed for parts that were no longer available, so—after frying the circuit board three times—Stoddard and Coleman redesigned it.
Coleman is passionate about the pediatric side of prosthetics. He’s involved in e-NABLE, a worldwide movement to provide 3-D printed hands to children in need. So he and Stoddard decided to put a fun spin on their Ada Hand by making it an Ironman Ada Hand, with chunky red and gold plates and a palm that glows, the idea being that kids going to physical therapy could feel they were going to superhero training instead. While the Ironman model did not become part of the e-NABLE program, it became the baseline for future projects and research, and Limb Lab has sent 3-D printed hands to children in need from New York to Ghana to Nepal. In some cases, Coleman notes, it costs more to ship a hand than it does to make it.
In addition, Stoddard wrote 16 pages of recommendations for Open Bionics, so that other people could print the Ada Hand more easily. “This project really pushed me to see where my limits are in terms of creative thinking and determination. It was definitely worth all the hard work and frustration that went into making it,” she says. “Even though I knew it wasn’t going to be for patient use, the fact that the whole summer we’d been working toward this one goal and it worked? It was, hands down, the best feeling.”