As Jude Rochon walked out of OHSU with a new scooter and a couple of prosthetic hands, Albert Chi, M.D., gave him a gentle warning.
“Take it easy with that,” he teased. “It’s an alpha model.”
Chi referred to the scooter – a gift from the OHSU Department of Surgery – but just as easily could have meant a new set of prosthetic hands that Chi produced using a 3D printer working off a free design. Chi put the finishing touches on the prosthetic hands (one that defaults to an open position and one in a closed fist) using simple materials available at any hardware store. It made a huge difference for Jude. The 6-year-old boy from Astoria, born without a right hand, for the first time was able to grip a scooter with both hands and use his new right hand to grip a juice box, cut a play dough version of a potato and grip a coloring pen.
The fitting generated coverage from several news outlets within the Portland area, drawn by a low-tech solution in the increasingly high-tech field of advanced prosthetics.
Chi arrived at OHSU in 2016 after a distinguished career with the targeted muscle reinnervation program at Johns Hopkins University. As a trauma surgeon with expertise in biomedical engineering, Chi has earned a reputation as one of the nation’s leading experts on improving the lives of people with traumatic injuries or congenital conditions.
Chi enables patients to control their prosthetics simply by thinking of the actions they want to perform. Targeted muscle reinnervation, or TMR, is cutting-edge technology inspired by some of the most memorable works of science fiction. In fact, Chi vividly recalls the scene in “The Empire Strikes Back” when Luke Skywalker gets a perfectly operable artificial hand to replace the one cut off by villain Darth Vader. In this galaxy, targeted muscle reinnervation works through a surgical procedure that reassigns existing nerves to the tasks required of prosthetic arms.
“By reassigning existing nerves, we can make it possible for people who have had upper-arm amputations to control their prosthetic devices merely by thinking about the action they want to perform,” Chi said.
The devices that come with such an intensive surgical procedure are sophisticated and expensive. Children with congenital limb reductions are not candidates for TMR, and prosthetics are often cost-prohibitive for children due to the need to be refitted as they grow. In 2013, Chi had just delivered a presentation to a congenital limb-loss group about the latest developments in targeted muscle reinnervation when a mother asked him about the potential for 3D printing to provide a lower-cost alternative.
“She looked at me and said, ‘My son is right here. What can you do for my kid?’” Chi recalled.
Chi soon partnered with the nonprofit Enabling the Future to begin building and distributing low-cost prosthetics using freely distributed designs. Using a 3D printer at his home, he’s dedicated many hours of his own time to build and fit dozens of these prosthetics, although Jude Rochon’s is the first in Oregon.
At OHSU, Chi is continuing to focus his research and clinical practice on people who have lost their limbs through trauma, infection, cancer or combat, as well as those, like Jude, who were born without limbs.
“His research stretches across all areas of medicine,” said Ken Azarow, M.D., interim chairman of the OHSU Department of Surgery.
Much of that work involves research participants who come in and test new prototypes, and then leave it behind in the laboratory. In his volunteer work with children like Jude, he’s able to provide an immediate and inexpensive improvement in their lives – validated by Jude’s ear-to-ear grin as he scooted away with his new arm.
“It’s a labor of love,” Chi said.