An art professor, with his 3-D printer, builds prosthetic hands for children in need.
She didn’t fully understand the cause. But she did know the practical effect: Her firstborn child, still in the womb, would be born without fingers on her right hand.
Ranee Stollenwerk of Mukwonago went home with her husband after their 20-week ultrasound in 2004. Amid the tears, she made a promise: “Nothing will stop you from doing everything you want to do,” she told her baby.
Fast-forward to February 2014. A month after her ninth birthday, Shea Stollenwerk fastened a prosthetic hand made of pink plastic to her wrist, with a thumb and four fingers custom-molded to the stumps that move in unison when she flexes her wrist.
She could now do things she wanted to do – peel potatoes to help with dinner, play the viola, swim – that were difficult or even impossible before.
The hand came not from a corporation or a faraway research lab. It was made not by an engineer or physical therapist. Instead, it came from an art professor, Frankie Flood, just down the road at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. And it was free.
Working with a 3-D printer, Flood has since made three more hands for Shea.
Partnering with a national group called e-NABLE that’s hosted through Google Plus, he’s built more hands for kids locally and as far away as Scotland, using basic materials available to anyone.
The hands are not substitutes for more elaborate prosthetics. But they do give people options not possible before.
Karuna Levie of Brookfield uses his hand to play trumpet. Hayley Fraser of Inverness, Scotland, uses hers to ride a scooter. Evan Halmstad of Catawba, Wis., uses his to play fetch with his dog.
The hands come on and off easily via Velcro straps and cost the families nothing. Flood, a father of three young children himself, says it will stay that way, noting the hands cost at most $50 in labor and materials. He shares the designs online for free, so others may learn and help more kids.
“I’m not going to charge a parent for a hand,” he says. “To me, it doesn’t make sense. The designs are free. They’re out there. Anyone can do it. I don’t see charging either for the designs or to gain the intellectual property for them. I just don’t feel right about it.”