Blakeley Brown is similar to lots of 5-year-olds. She loves being active, pink is her favorite color and she just started kindergarten last week.
But Blakeley stands apart in a major way: She has a 3D-printed hand to replace the one she lost when she was born. She suffered from Amniotic Band Syndrome in her mother’s womb, and her right arm ends after her elbow.
Thanks to Enabling the Future, a nonprofit that creates and gives free prosthetics to children around the world, she received the prosthetic hand in the mail Tuesday free of charge, and the group will continue to send her new ones until she stops growing.
The device, which will allow Blakeley to pick things up, is attached to a plastic sleeve that goes around her arm.
“When she opened it, she was like, ‘whoa, OK, what is this?’” said Blakeley’s mother, Sierra Brown. “But now she’s like, ‘You know what, I can use this to my advantage. I can grab stuff that I’ve never grabbed before.’”
Brown, whose family lives in a housing development east of Tumalo, said the road to giving her daughter a new hand began two years ago, when she saw a picture of another child with a 3D-printed prosthetic on Facebook.
The person who posted the photo was Steve Palma, a mechanical engineer who works with Enabling the Future.
However, the group couldn’t design a device for Blakeley right away, Palma said.
“One of the issues was that she was really young at that time,” he said. “It really is hard to make prosthetics for such a young child. Even at the age of 5, it’s very hard.”
According to Palma, he later obtained the measurements of Blakeley’s arm using only a photograph sent to him by Blakeley’s grandfather, Jon Ash. Then, after putting the project on pause for a year due to illness (and a subsequent move to Berlin), Palma began designing the prosthetic device last year.
Then, because he lived in Germany, he sent the design to Barry Maxwell, another person who works with Enabling the Future in Florida, who 3D-printed the device, put it together, and shipped it to Bend. According to Palma, a prosthetic like this costs about $50 to $100 for the material, and take between 40 and 80 hours of work to design and create.
Blakeley’s device is made of a material that at first appears white, but turns bright pink in the sunlight, which excited Blakeley and her mom.
“When we saw it was just white, it was like, ‘aww, OK’” Brown said. “Then when we found out it color-changed, it was really cool.”
Blakeley said she plans on adding stickers to her prosthetic eventually. For now, she’s just learning how to operate it.
The hand closes when Blakeley pulls up her arm using a wire. Because it’s a sharp learning curve, Blakeley had to try multiple times to pick up a toy or write on the driveway using chalk, although she eventually managed to do both. Brown said her daughter didn’t wear the prosthetic to her first two days of kindergarten, opting to stick with her “little hand,” as Brown and Blakeley call her arm.
“She was just a little nervous about it, thinking, ‘oh, the kids might not like it,’” said Brown. “But she’s getting used to it.”
Blakeley said the device hurts when she puts it on. That’s because she refuses to wear a sleeve on her own arm, saying “it’s too warm.”
Still, the kindergartner is becoming accustomed to the prosthetic device.
“She brings it around the house, and now she takes it around like it’s her friend,” Brown said. “She’s trying to grab stuff that she hadn’t been able to grab before. She’ll pick it up, and her sisters help her and encourage her.”
What does Blakeley like most about her new hand? “I couldn’t hold my own toys before this arm,” she said.
Ash said it’s completely normal that Blakeley would take a while to adjust to her prosthetic.
“If any of us can imagine, all of a sudden, you’ve got something that you didn’t have before, and yet at the same time it’s totally foreign,” he said. “(It’s like) a third arm, or having your eyesight restored.”
Because the device is expected to fit until Blakeley is 7 or 8, it’s a little oversized right now. Palma said they’ll give her a new hand/arm device every couple years until her late teen years, when they’ll fit her with a high-tech, robotic prosthetic connected to the nerves in her arm, so she can move it using her thoughts instead of mechanics.
“This is a lifelong endeavor,” he said. “It’s not something that you simply do one time, and the child goes on their way. We normally stay with children as long as they’re growing up and they need an arm, we make it for them.”
According to Palma, the free prosthetics, which even come in superhero or Disney princess designs, can help children on several levels.
“Psychologically, it helps the child out, and when other kids see it, it kind of changes the view of the prosthetic itself,” he said.
Although Blakeley is still taking a crash course in having a second hand, she said she’s excited to reveal it during a future show-and-tell session for her classmates, teachers and principal at Lava Ridge Elementary.
“It’ll be a big thing when she can come and show everybody,” Brown said. “She can say, ‘I do have a hand, it’s just a little different than your guys’ hand.’”
— Reporter: 541-617-7854; firstname.lastname@example.org