When Rufus Myers lost his fingers and legs to a bacterial infection in 2016, the U.S. Marine Corps veteran knew he could to find a way to keep doing the things he loved. But, when it came to getting back out on the green, Myers needed a little help from a team at the University of South Florida and James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa.
Using a combination of traditional prosthetic techniques and innovative 3D printing technology, the team worked together to develop a custom-made, prosthetic attachment that gives Myers the ability to swing a golf club like a pro.
“I would have never thought that they could be doing what they’re doing,” Myers, 64, said during a test fitting at the VA. “It’s really incredible to see how they’re able to customize these devices to allow me to do these things. It’s been a blessing.”
The project is the result of a unique partnership between USF and the VA. Howard Kaplan runs the USF Advanced Visualization Center (AVC), a facility designed to help the university community incorporate new technologies into their work. Along with helping students, staff and faculty, Kaplan has been assisting the VA’s prosthetics team for several years, using his 3D printing expertise to rapidly build custom-made devices for patients. He knew that experience could also benefit students, so, he brought the idea to a class taught by USF Assistant Professor Anna Pyayt, PhD, in the Department of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering.
The upper-division course, Modern Biomedical Technologies, is designed to get students thinking about real life problems they can work to solve through engineering. Along with the golf prosthetic, students tackled a variety of other projects like disease detection in animals and carpal tunnel syndrome relief. With support from the AVC, many of the groups utilize the facility to design and fabricate prototype devices to test outside the lab.
“All of the groups try to find a particular problem they’re motivated to solve,” Pyayt said. “As a result, I think they become better engineers because they’re looking for real problems they can find solutions to and have a positive impact on people.”
For the students working on Myers’ prosthetic, the experience has been a rewarding one. Sara Redlick, Ray Pilczuk and Adam White, all of whom graduated this spring with bachelor’s degrees in chemical engineering, say they knew they wanted to work with the VA as soon as they learned about the opportunity.
“It’s been very gratifying because it feels like we’re making a real impact on someone’s life,” Redlick said. “We’re giving him a tool to be able to do something he otherwise couldn’t, so it’s very fulfilling.”
The project gave the students the chance to work with prosthetic experts, introducing them to different techniques and providing them the opportunity to interface directly with a patient. The students designed and 3D printed several iterations of the device before narrowing down the best solution to the problem.
“It was an amazing opportunity to be able to work on this project,” Pilczuk said. “I feel really grateful.”
“I think it’s really great for everybody, especially for the students,” said Kaplan. “Many of them went into their chosen area of study with a passion for it but letting them see how what they’ve learned can provide a better quality of life for patients really inspired many of them.”
The team is continuing to make minor adjustments to the device and expects Myers test it on the golf course sometime this summer. While the VA partnership is just one part of the larger course, Kaplan and Pyayt hope to continue offering these opportunities to students – something Myers says he’d like to see adopted at other veterans’ hospitals, so more vets are able to get customized devices that suit their needs.
“You couldn’t ask for better people,” he said. “Everyone here at the VA and the USF students and staff working on this have just been amazing. I can’t wait to get back out on the course.”