Megan Lavelle’s youngest daughter Emma was born with Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita (AMC). This is a non-progressive condition that causes stiff joints and very underdeveloped muscles. When she was born, Emma couldn’t even move her thumb. Doctors immediately performed surgery and casted Emma’s legs. Medical experts warned Megan that AMC would prevent Emma from ever experiencing any sort of normalcy. She developed more slowly than an average child and spent much of her first two years in casts or undergoing surgery.
At a Philadelphia conference for AMC families, Megan Lavelle learned about the Wilmington Robotic Exoskeleton (WREX), which is an assistive device made of hinged metal bars and resistance bands. This WREX enables children with underdeveloped arms to use their arms like any other kid to play, feed themselves and give the occasional hug. Imagine being a child and not being able to give your mom or dad.
At two years old, Emma still couldn’t lift her arms. She progressed, slow and steady as she grew and became able to move about with the help of a walker. But the smart little girl wanted more. In came the WREX, demonstrated at the conference by an 8-year old AMC patient lifting his arms and moving them in all directions. After this demonstration Megan met with Tariq Rahman, head of pediatric engineering and research, and Whitney Sample, research designer, both from Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware. There was a problem. Although Rahman and Sample had worked for years to make the device progressively smaller, the WREX worked for kids as young as six. Emma was two, and even small for her age so this device didn’t fit her properly.
In their workshop, Rahman and Sample strapped Emma’s arms into a small trial WREX attached to a stationary support. “She just started throwing her hands around and playing,” Sample says. Megan brought Emma candy and toys and watched her lift her arms toward her mouth for the first time.
The final design
To wear the WREX outside of the workshop, Rahman and Sample needed to scale the trial model down in size and weight. In came the Stratasys 3D printer.
The 3D printer printed a prototype WREX specially designed to fit Emma’s measurements in ABS plastic. The difference in weight allowed Sample to attach the Emma-WREX to a little plastic vest.
This 3D printed WREX turned out to be durable enough for everyday use. Emma now wears it anywhere she can and is able to live her life a little bit more like a normal kid. Emma quickly grew to love the abilities WREX unlocked in her. “When she started to express herself, we would go upstairs [to Sample’s workshop] and we would say, ‘Emma, you know we’re going to put the WREX on.’ And she called them her magic arms,” Lavelle says.
Take a look at this video showing Emma being able to use her arms