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This Civil War Survivor From Sierra Leone Is Building Better, Cheaper Prosthetic Limbs

Now at MIT, David Sengeh saw firsthand the problems people had with replacement limbs. His works better–and is cheaper, too.

There are some things in life that only become relevant when you’re hammered with its importance every day–and then you wonder how anyone can ignore it. Such is the case for David Sengeh, a PhD student at MIT who grew up during Sierra Leone’s 11-year-long civil war.

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Sengeh was there when up to 11,000 people–in a small country of under 6 million–had limb amputations resulting from the violence. And he was there to see just how inadequate today’s hard plastic prosthetics are for amputees, who sometimes don’t even bother wearing their prosthetics because the socket (the device that hooks up the residual limb and the prosthetic) is so painful.

“Whether you’re in the U.S. or the developing world, what you currently have is not good enough,” says Sengeh, who was recently named a 2014 TED Fellow. Even custom-fitted prosthetics don’t rely on quantitative data so much as the experience of the prosthetist. “You go to the prosthetist, take a mold of the limb, press it on the body, modify it, do it over and over again, build the socket, test it, come back, get feedback, and do it again,” Sengeh explains. The sockets are inevitably uncomfortable, even with a skilled prosthetist in charge.

Sengeh decided he could build a better, cheaper, and more comfortable socket using 3-D printing. First, he scans a patient’s residual limb with an MRI machine. Then he 3-D prints a socket “using data from the body, figuring out how to optimize certain functions based on what we want to experience.” The 3-D printed sockets are stiff in only the right areas, reducing the soft tissue strain that often leads to injury.


“In terms of cost, it’s actually cheaper. The whole process takes two days. There’s no way anybody today can get you a comfortable socket in two days,” he says.

The MIT student is still working on perfecting his technology, but hopes to have it finished in the next year or so. In the meantime, he has plenty of other projects to keep himself busy, including a repository for every FDA-approved replacement part for amputees and Innovate Salone, a mentoring program for youth in Sierra Leone.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more

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