Labour of love for brother
High school student Gabriel Filippini was in technology teacher Kurt O’Connor’s study hall when he approached the teacher with an unusual question: could they use the classroom 3D printer to build his little brother a hand?
Lucas was born without a left hand, and throughout kindergarten was able to do nearly everything other little boys could, including zipping up his jacket, riding a bike, even gripping monkey bars using his palm.
But in elementary school, Lucas encountered a problem he couldn’t solve: he couldn’t tie his shoelaces.
So Gabriel, a rising junior at Loudoun County’s Park View High School in Sterling, Virginia, and his family began exploring getting Lucas a prosthetic hand.
They signed up for a donated one from Enabling the Future, an organisation that enlists volunteers to use 3D printers to build hands. Lucas was on the list, but he was getting impatient.
Gabriel, 16, wondered whether there was another way. When he spotted the 3D printer in O’Connor’s classroom, he decided to approach him with the idea of using Enabling the Future’s free blueprints to build Lucas a hand.
‘‘I told him we could give him a shot,’’ O’Connor said.
His family members say they are perpetually in awe of how Lucas manages without one of his hands. But they were disheartened when he complained about his classmates asking him about it, and Lucas would occasionally ask when his palm would grow into a real hand. ‘‘I wanted to see what he could do with two hands,’’ Gabriel said.
O’Connor said he was privately sceptical about being able to build a hand for Lucas.
O’Connor is a hobby carpenter but was a novice on the 3D printer, and had mostly assigned students to build small puzzles, key chains and fins for model rockets – all far less sophisticated than a prosthetic hand.
But he welcomed the challenge, and was moved by Gabriel’s dedication to his little brother.
Gabriel helped O’Connor identify a blueprint, and worked to scale the model to his brother’s proportions.
O’Connor spent about 40 hours constructing the hand, meticulously printing out pieces and assembling them. The machine put in about 30 hours of printing as it fabricated the hand’s parts.
O’Connor had to scrap two partial models that were too big for Lucas, but he plans to save them so he can build Lucas additional hands as he grows.
Maker Smith, a group that provides space and equipment for hi-tech tinkerers and inventors, also helped O’Connor with the project, donating an expensive, flexible material that forms the joints of the fingers.
On Lucas’s 6th birthday two weeks ago, his mother Romina Barrera surprised him with a trip to O’Connor’s classroom, where he was fitted with the hand. He reached for his mother’s phone, then grasped cups and small boxes before taking a tour of the high school and giving high-fives.
‘‘I don’t know if I’ve ever been able to see that type of excitement or to experience something like that,’’ O’Connor said. ‘‘It was pretty cool.’’
The hand is attached to Lucas’s arm with Velcro. By bending his wrist, he can manipulate the fingers to pick things up.
On his birthday, he began by picking up small boxes. He is slowly developing the muscles he will need to build dexterity, moving on to glasses of milk and stacks of paper.
O’Connor said he hoped to have his students working on prosthetic hands for Enabling the Future so he could teach them engineering while also helping other children like Lucas.
Lucas said the problem he would still like to conquer is the one that sets him apart from his classmates: tying his shoelaces.
Gabriel Filippini, 16, shows how the prosthetic hand of his brother Lucas Filippini, 6, works as their mother, Romina Barrera, helps Lucas strap on the hand at Park View High School in Sterling, Virginia.