Mr. Milton’s arms

| November 15, 2013

Something about the guy with no arms and no legs but an indefatigable smile compels Scott Pierce.

He wants so badly to help the man. He is roughly seven months and $2,500 away from doing something about it.

Newton Milton lost his limbs about 11 years ago in a construction accident when the tape measure he was using arced to a high-voltage power line and electrocuted him. His burned extremities had to be amputated near the torso.

Sarah Lightbody ’12 (from left), Mr. Milton, Kellner Pruett ’12 and Professor Scott Pierce at their first meeting in June 2011.

His wife has pushed him around in a wheelchair ever since, taking care of his needs and working to support them.

The Miltons live in an impoverished region in eastern Brazil. They have few economic means. His artificial legs from the government don’t fit well and they’re of little use without arms.

These were Mr. Milton’s circumstances when Pierce, an associate professor at Sweet Briar, and two former students, Sarah Lightbody ’12 and Kellner Pruett ’12, met him in June 2011.

They were there as part the College’s biennial “Tech and Society” course. Engineering students at Sweet Briar and St. Ambrose University in Iowa collaborate on the design and testing of assistive devices for disabled clients at an occupational therapy clinic in the coastal city of Ilhéus.

The group went to the Miltons’ home to see what they might devise to help him get around the house without his wife’s assistance.

“She had made us a cake. And he was just the nicest, happiest person you’d ever want to meet,” Pierce recalled recently.

He paused, searching for words.

“The students were crying. It was really inspiring how he’s accepted what’s happened to him, that it’s out of his control and he is happy to be alive every day. He was so nice to us and so inspiring about how you should face adversity in your life. And so we just decided we’re going to do something to help this guy.

“It’s clear that if he had prosthetic upper limbs, it would allow him to move his wheelchair around, to grasp things, feed himself, etcetera, etcetera. He suddenly becomes mobile and he can engage the world around him.”

Around that time, Pierce and Lightbody were already working on a prototype for inexpensive myoelectric upper limb prostheses for use in developing countries, but they were years from achieving it. The trio began looking for a manufacturer to donate the components for conventional mechanical arms. They quickly learned how complicated it is to properly assemble and fit a prosthetic limb.

Fortunately, they found Mary Grant, a certified prosthetist at the University of Virginia Heath System. In January 2012, Pierce and several students visited Grant at the UVa clinic, to watch her make a demonstration video, using a volunteer amputee, showing how to make molds of Milton’s residual limbs. The molds are used to fabricate the socket portion of the prostheses.

If Pierce could get the molds made and obtain the prosthetic parts, Grant and her UVa colleagues were willing to construct the interfaces and assemble the arms. Making a good cast to ensure the sockets fit comfortably is tricky, Grant says. It takes experience.

In this case, the task would be entrusted to occupational therapy students from St. Ambrose. Following Grant’s video instructions, they planned to make the molds during an annual trip to Ilhéus in June 2012. It wasn’t ideal, Grant conceded.

“That being said, this would still seem to be this man’s best opportunity for arms. I applaud these folks for wanting to try,” she said in December 2011, pledging to help however she could.

Students translated instructions to take measurements for Mr. Milton’s arms in Brazil, before Sweet Briar maintenance supervisor Randy Cash was tapped as a surrogate.

She is keeping that promise. St. Ambrose delivered the molds. Pierce asked Grant what comes next.

Find someone of Mr. Milton’s body size and shape, perhaps a brother or uncle, and take measurements of his limbs so the artificial parts will be proportioned correctly, Grant told him. That was easier said than done. Brazil is a Portuguese-speaking country 4,500 miles away and Google has proved a poor translator.

But Randy Cash, a maintenance supervisor at Sweet Briar, is right here and he’s built a lot like Milton — stocky and big around the chest.

“I made the decision,” Pierce says. “A little variation from what his actual arms were isn’t going to be the end of the world. It’s not like using this thing is going to be intuitive anyway. We’re gonna measure Randy and go with that. And so we did.”

All he needs now are the parts for the artificial limbs — the socket and the elbow, forearm and wrist, plus a harness, cable system, and hook or hand. Another team of St. Ambrose occupational therapists can deliver them and train Milton to use them during their 2014 visit.

Because Sweet Briar’s “Tech and Society” class is not scheduled again until 2015, Pierce doesn’t plan to go unless he needs to, to ensure someone is dedicated to successful training. Part of him wants to be there to see it through, but he doesn’t think the expense is justified.

“All I want is to get this guy a better quality of life, that’s the only thing I care about,” Pierce says.

He has raised about $1,000 of the $3,500 that he needs to order the parts for Milton’s arms by January, in time to meet the delivery schedule. He set up a “Sweet Prosthetics” account through the College’s giving website, where people can make a tax-deductible donation through an online form using a credit card. Meanwhile, the Sweet Spirits are fundraising for him, too.

Seven months and $2,500. That’s all he needs.

Jennifer McManamay


Category: Engineering Science