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.”
Flood grew up in a southern Illinois town of about 200 people. His father, Franklin, worked factory jobs that deadened the soul. It forced him to find outlets away from work. Where some found solace in a bottle, his dad directed his energy toward projects.
He built things. He fixed things. He built the tools needed to build things and fix things. No task was too big or too small. No mission was impossible.
Young Frankie viewed his father’s unending curiosity and Mr. Fix-It mentality with awe and respect. Son helped father and learned from him. They rebuilt car engines together. They restored a 1967 Ford Mustang when Frankie was in high school.
As a fast-rising academic – he got his master of fine arts in metalsmithing at the University of Illinois, and earned tenure as a UWM art professor in 2011 at age 36 – he hasn’t veered from what he learned as a lad.
Flood drives to work on a classic BMW motorcycle, one of three he’s restored in his spare time. His office looks like a mechanic’s garage, with lathes and grinders and hammers he’s rescued from abandoned industrial sites, plus tools he built himself.
When 3-D printers got more mainstream attention, he asked the university for one.
Finding little support for the idea, he built one himself in 2008, the first of what’s now a collection of 16 – all but four built by Flood or others at the university – in a third-floor research lab funded by progressively larger grants. The Greater Milwaukee Foundation has given more than $100,000, making it the highest donor for the lab.
“I do anything that deals with function,” he says. “I think it comes from my background with my dad. It was ingrained that you make the tool to make the thing. I’ve always approached my practice that way. I’ll say, ‘I want to learn how to do this thing, so I’ll build this tool that will allow me to do it.’”
When Flood built his first 3-D printer – which works by heating plastic filament and building an object layer by layer – he had no designs on building prosthetic hands. He got involved with Milwaukee Makerspace, which he describes as “a health club for makers,” where you pay a monthly fee and gain access to rooms full of equipment and tools.
In December 2013, 8-year-old Shea Stollenwerk of Mukwonago asked Santa for a new hand for Christmas. She had seen a clip online of a South African man getting a 3-D-printed hand made by a professor in Washington. She wanted one, too.
Her mother, Ranee, searched for someone via the e-NABLE online community, then an upstart and tiny group of 3-D-printed handbuilders. It led to a researcher in California. He suggested she contact Makerspace, which led her to Flood. They started chatting on Google. A few days later – Christmas Eve 2013 – Flood agreed to try and make Shea a hand.
In the coming weeks, Flood met with Shea, trying to get to know her and understand her needs and preferences. He has all hand recipients trace both their unaffected hand and the one missing fingers. He can load both into a computer drafting program and build a new one custom-fitted to the stub of one hand and matched up with the unaffected one.
On an early-February day – seven weeks after first agreeing to it – Flood had Shea come in and try out the hand. She strapped it on to her wrist. Flood put a roll of tape and some stray objects on a table. Shea grasped them with the superhero-looking pink hand, her fingers clenching in unison as she flexed her wrist.
“It was amazing,” Flood says. “I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”
For Ranee Stollenwerk, seeing her daughter use the hand built by Flood, and seeing the relationship between the two grow even closer in the years since, reminded her of the moment in her pregnancy when she learned her baby would be born missing fingers.
“I made that promise long ago having no idea what I was getting into,” Stollenwerk says, holding back tears. “Frankie’s allowed me to keep that promise.”
Daniel Simmons is a senior editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Write to him at email@example.com.
‘In Good Hands’ appears in Milwaukee Health, a brand new addition to the Milwaukee Magazine family.