by Anastasia Lennon

From left to right: Mike Benning, Rushel Rhiney, Maggie Baumer, and Dianna “Dee” Suthers.

BOSTON—At HUBweek 2018, Design Museum Boston previewed its upcoming exhibit “Bespoke Bodies: The Design and Craft of Prosthetics.” With a preview in a shipping container, a pop-up exhibit in the Hall of the Future, and a panel discussion, attendees had many opportunities to view not only the latest technology in prosthetics, but also the innumerable people and stories behind it.

Edgar Rodriguez of Hanger, Inc., shows how the i-limb prosthesis responds to muscle movement.

“It’s perfect for HUBweek,” said Sam Aquillano, executive director at the museum. “HUBweek is all about the intersection of art, science, and technology, It’s about people, it’s about design and functionality.”

Maggie Baumer holds her other prosthesis, a silicon piece made by SilTec Labs.

Prostheses have been portrayed many ways in popular culture. There is Buster Bluth, the bumbling idiot brother in “Arrested Development” who loses his hand to a harbor seal and ends up with a “hook” for a hand. Then there is Disney villain Captain Hook who bears the moniker for his sharp and dangerous hook prosthetic.

Mike Benning, a panelist in Friday’s discussion, drew comparisons to the latter character. As he said, he went from “Captain Hook to Bionic Man” when he put on his new myoelectric prosthesis. He went from a body-powered prosthesis, in which the movement of the upper body opens or closes two curved hooks, to an electric prosthesis that could not only grip, but also gesture. With technological innovation, prostheses are becoming more seamlessly integrated with the person.

Mike Benning had an above-elbow amputation at age 14. He now wears a myoelectric prosthetic—an improvement from his body-powered one as he wears it later into the day and conserves more energy.

“I’m not any different from any of you guys,” said Dianna “Dee” Suthers, a panelist from East Sandwich, Massachusetts who has an above-knee prosthesis. The only time she really notices her prosthesis is when it rains: “my foot gets wet and I wonder why both my feet aren’t wet.”

Rushel Rhiney models her prosthetic cover. She said it was difficult to choose the design and color combination because there were so many options.

Rushel Rhiney of Springfield, Massachusetts, another panelist, also has an above-knee prosthesis. She had much of her leg amputated at the age of nine due to proximal femoral focal deficiency, a congenital defect that affects the pelvis and femur. Initially, Rhiney had trouble accepting her prosthetic leg.

“I did not particularly enjoy wearing it, but over time I got used to looking at my shadow. Seeing both legs on the ground made me so excited. It’s so beautiful to me and I enjoy wearing it.”
A graphic illustrates the different kinds of prostheses used for specific sites of amputation.

“At first I felt like it was more of a tool,” she said. “I did not particularly enjoy wearing it, but over time I got used to looking at my shadow. Seeing both legs on the ground made me so excited. It’s so beautiful to me and I enjoy wearing it.”

The model of prosthesis she wears now is a C-Leg, a computerized model that she has had for two years. While it is not perfect (stairs remain a bit of a challenge) Rhiney is happy. She can wear heels (up to 3.5 inches) and accessorize it with a colorful 3D-printed plastic cover. Function and stability are very important to her, but so are aesthetics.

Leg covers made by ALLELES Design Studio on display at the museum’s pop-up.
3D printed leg covers made by ALLELES Design Studio on display at the museum’s pop-up.

Her experience living with a prosthesis has made her consider pursuing a degree in biomedical engineering. She even makes tweaks to her own device so that it can be more comfortable.

Like Rhiney, Suthers has also been innovative with her prosthesis. She showed the audience the zipper she sewed into the inseam of her jeans. Unzipping the leg opening allows her to put on pants with ease. She said she has done the same to most of the long pants in her closet.

A motorcycle enthusiast and scuba diver, Suthers has also devised designs that allow her to enjoy her hobbies. She brought a second iteration of a swimming flipper to the panel. The flipper was borrowed from a neighbor and transformed with some velcro straps and crazy glue to fit around her prosthetic foot.

Aside from a little boy at the beach who was unhappy to see that she painted her “robot toes” (the toes of her prosthesis), Suthers said that she does not notice if people stare at her leg.

“One of our aims is to have a public conversation about prostheses and expose people to this whole world,” said Aquillano.

Maggie Baumer speaks with a visitor at the container pop-up.

The museum appears to already be accomplishing that mission. The container pop-up attracted dozens of adults and many more extremely curious schoolchildren. Long lines formed to try out a myoelectric prosthesis and people crowded around Baumer as she happily explained how her prosthesis functions.

Edgar Rodriguez of Hanger, Inc. is an orthotist and prosthetist who helped with the container preview. He held the two leads to the person’s extensor and flexor forearm muscles as they tried out the myoelectric hand. The more the user can isolate the muscle movement, the better the response will be in the prosthetic hand.

Students line up to try the i-limb quantum myoelectric prosthesis.

Maggie Baumer demonstrates how she calibrates her prosthesis in the morning.

A visitor tries moving the myoelectric hand.

Amanda Hawkins, exhibition manager at Design Museum Boston, demonstrates how to use an app to make gestures with the prosthesis.
Visitors engage with the mini-exhibit.
A student tries the i-limb myoelectric prosthesis.

From the exclamations of “wow” and expressions of incredulity on the faces of many attendees, one can surmise that the full exhibit, which opens in early 2019, will be popular with visitors.

All photos taken by Anastasia Lennon, #JO704

Created By
Anastasia Lennon

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