Victoria Hand Project: patients' stories

VHP: Using 3D printing to change the lives of amputees

3D printing is gaining ground in the medical field. The Victoria Hand Project (VHP) is using the technology to develop ground-breaking prosthetics for people in developing countries – improving their lives significantly. Recently, the project has been selected as one of the top ten finalists of the Impact Challenge in Canada, a competition created to find and fund the most innovative nonprofits. Here’s more about VHP's work, challenges, and the individuals benefitting from their efforts.

The challenges

The VHP's team uses Ultimaker 3D printers to create tailor-made prosthetics, at a fraction of the usual cost. However, the team faces a lot of challenges when working out in the field. Here’s just a few:

Design and functionality. Unsurprisingly, most amputees want their prosthesis to function like a regular human hand. In some countries, there’s a stigma attached to prosthetic limbs, and patients want to disguise the fact that they’re an amputee. The VHP have the challenge of designing a fully operational prosthesis, whilst maintaining the illusion of a real hand.

Traditionally, gloves are used to cover the prosthetic hand and match the skin tone of the amputee. However, these gloves stain and tear over time, and can affect the functionality of the prosthesis. VHP came up with a great solution – spray painting the prosthetic hand to match the skin tone. It’s gone down well with amputees, who say it offers better cosmetic appeal, without impeding the function.

Interestingly, in Canada, some amputees actively want to show off their prosthetics, and there are even a group of artists in Victoria who are creating designs for the hands!

vhp prosthetic hands

Aesthetics. The VHP team had to take aesthetics very seriously, as in some cultures, amputees are ostracized. People with prosthetic limbs sometimes find it hard to find work, and end up trying to find low-paying labour-based jobs, which are harder for them to do, due to their amputation. In some cases, if the prosthetic didn’t look ‘right’, the patient simply wouldn’t wear it.

Finances. Cost is a vital factor, especially when working in developing countries. Traditionally, donated second-hand prosthetics are flown in from first world countries – but these don’t offer the tailored fit that an amputee needs. The Range of Motion Project in Guatemala (collaborating with VHP) do an excellent job of fixing the second-hand prosthetics and fitting them, as do Northern Prosthetics in Nepal, but ideally, there needs to be a better solution.

VHP’s patients

VHP’s efforts are best explained through the people they work with. Here are a few fascinating case studies.

Aaitaram, Nepal

Aaitaram, VHP patient from Nepal
It is a challenge for me and anyone with a disability. If you don’t have confidence and willpower, you don’t exist.

Aaitaram is from Kathmandu, and was born missing part of his left arm (below the elbow). This congenital defect made many everyday tasks difficult, and also left him with very low self-confidence. He had a cosmetic prosthesis, but it wasn’t an assistive device, and offered no functionality. Aaitaram often wondered what it would be like to be a ‘normal person’, and to be able to perform basic tasks with ease.

Fortunately, one day he met Paulo Thiago, who was living in Kathmandu at the time. Paulo told Aaitaram about VHP’s new 3D printing project in the Nepal Orthopaedic Hospital, which he believed would be of benefit.

Initially, Aaitaram’s case was problematic, as the 3D printed socket wouldn’t fit his stump. So, the Nepal team developed a new type of socket, to ensure Aaitaram could receive the prosthesis. It was made to fit a polyethylene socket (made by the prosthesist) into the 3D printed socket.

Since receiving the new prosthesis, Aaitaram’s life has changed. He can now perform simple, general tasks, and he says that the new limb has helped him to find new work. He wears it at all times (apart from at night), and he’s happy to have a functional prosthetic.

Isabel, Guatemala

Isabel, VHP's patient from Guatemala

Isabel lives in Guatemala, and lost his arm in a work accident, 12 years ago. Since the accident, he’s been using the traditional split hook device, which is functional and strong, but quite heavy, not to mention a bit unsightly.

Having a prosthetic was vital to Isabel, as he needed to continue working and providing for his family. When he first encountered VHP, he was astounded at the functionality and appearance of their prosthetics, not to mention how lightweight and versatile they were. Isabel was one of the first people to work with the VHP in Guatemala, and has had the opportunity to try out all the different devices. He was the first to be fitted with the Voluntary Open device last February, and wears it proudly when out and about.

Cristian, Ecuador

Cristian is a bilateral amputee, living in Quito. He lost both his hands in an electrical accident, and spent a long time afterwards recovering in hospital. After being released, Cristian was unable to get a prosthesis, which gave him severe depression. Finally, he received prosthetic arms, but they were only for cosmetic purposes, and weren’t any use for day-to-day tasks. He was desperate for a prosthesis that would function well, and also be aesthetically pleasing.

Cristian, VHP patient from Ecuador
Cristian, VHP patient in Ecuador

In 2016, VHP and the Range of Motion Project fitted Cristian with two 3D printed hands, which offered good functionality and cosmetic appeal. They were printed and built at the Range of Motion development lab, using an Ultimaker 2 printer. The hands were developed to use a ½-20 bolt in the hand, which means Cristian can swap the hand for a hook, depending on his needs. It can be changed within a few minutes.

Cristian was really pleased with his hands, and said he couldn’t wait to use them in his job (he’s an office receptionist). In fact, he was so enthusiastic about the prosthetics that he immediately started testing them out, doing up the zipper on his jacket, writing with a pen and picking objects up.

Cristian was one of the first patients to be fitted with a VHP device in Ecuador. Both the Range of Hand Project and VHP hope he’ll be the first of many to benefit from their services.

Bun, Cambodia

Bun Vibol, VHP patient from Cambodia

Bun Vibol lost his right hand after a mine exploded near him, during the Cambodian civil war. The country has the world’s highest proportion of landmine amputees – but for most individuals, living without an adequate prosthetic is the only option.

The VHP created a lightweight, functional prosthetic arm for Bun, which was created using biodegradable plastic and corn, on an Ultimaker 3D printer. The cost of making his prosthesis was just $320, and it took 40 hours to print and assemble.

You can hear more about Bun’s story here.

Find out more and support

VHP continues to do amazing work in Egypt, Nepal, Ecuador, Cambodia and Guatemala. Make sure to check out their previous stories to learn more about their ergonomic enhancements, accomplishments, and struggles.

Selected among over 900 nonprofit organizations as one of the most innovative company, VHP has now the chance to win $750,000 funding from the Impact Challenge. This grant will enable them to:

  • help over 750 new amputees in 5 new countries and 5 existing partner countries, over 3 years;
  • establish local 3D print centers, equipped with all the tools to make 3D printed prosthetics, and employ full-time technicians from the local community;
  • provide the necessary training to all local partners in Guatemala, Ecuador, Nepal, Cambodia, and Haiti.

If you’d like to find out more about VHP and support their cause, go ahead and vote for them now.