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Giving a helping hand

Technical Medicine student Merel van der Stelt (25) is helping to provide prosthetics to amputees in Sierra Leone. During her internship in the African country, she used a 3D printer to create prosthetics for local patients. Now she is a part of a team aiming to set up a 3D-Lab there.

When Merel van der Stelt arrived to the Masanga Hospital in 2018, she was the first Technical Medicine student to work there. ‘The 3D printer was already there thanks to my supervisor Lars Brouwers, who had the initial idea,’ says the UT student. She was there to do research on how to efficiently use the printer for making affordable prosthetics. ‘But you have to imagine that the hospital has very basic equipment. Sometimes the electricity cuts off and you are performing a surgery in darkness. And I started thinking: if there is no electricity, what am I doing here with a 3D printer?’

Van der Stelt decided not to give up. She started visiting local prosthetics shops and learnt about the issue at hand. ‘I found out that making prosthetics in Sierra Leone is expensive for people living there. With an average income of $506 USD a year, buying a prosthesis of 150 dollar is beyond reach for most. Besides that, it is very hard to find the right materials and trained people,’ she describes. ‘But eventually I figured it out and started making arm and hand prosthetics for a few locals. It means so much for them. They feel really embarrassed about their amputated limbs and hide them under clothes. So to make something out of plastic that they are actually proud of… That is really special.’

The project ‘3D Sierra Leone’ started small, but it is growing in collaboration with the Technical Medicine department at the University of Twente and under the supervision of the 3D-Lab at Radboudumc. ‘There are now a lot of students doing internships at the Masanga Hospital. Every ten weeks a new Technical Medicine student goes there to work on prosthetics and check on patients. I’m now working on a graduation internship focused on 3D printed lower leg prostheses. I hope to go back to Masanga to continue the research and work with patients there,’ says Van der Stelt.  

To further the initiative, there is now a crowd-funding project for a 3D-Lab in Sierra Leone. ‘We would like the project to become fully sustainable,’ says Van der Stelt. ‘We want to involve local people and train them to make prosthetics. There are many amputees in Sierra Leone, because a lot of people don’t go to a hospital until it’s too late. Also, many people lost their limbs during the Civil War that ended nearly twenty years ago. But the situation is getting better, people are getting more informed and we are there to offer a helping hand so to speak.’