Connecting to Prosthetics

As technology continues to forever change the art, music, and performance worlds, we also see an impact in the medical field. Modern medical practices such as surgeries and x-rays are now aided by the advances in technology, and these positive changes are saving lives. Unlike the other areas, medicine has an obvious use for new technology: to help people and animals improve their quality of life. There is no question then of “why” to implement technology, just as there is no question of why surgeons should perform surgery. Perhaps the more appropriate questions to ask are “how,” “with what resources,” and “with what results?”

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Beauty the eagle

I started by reading an article called, “10 Animals Who Got a 2nd Chance in Life with 3D Printing” about how 3D printing for making animal prosthetics. The article was sweet, cheesy, and touching, with videos of the animals (all of which had fun names) and brief paragraphs about their success. I watched the video about Beauty, a bald eagle who was shot in the face and recovered by way of a 3D printed prosthetic beak, and was amazed by the number of people on the recovery team. With the use of technology, medical teams need many more people on board, with more skill sets: not only are trained medical professionals needed, but artists, designers, technicians, and craftsmen are all essential for completing the job. In Beauty’s case, and probably in the case of other animals going through difficult medical procedures, a trainer was also there to calm the bird and provide emotional support. And, because it was an injury of the jaw/teeth, a dentist was also at the scene. It seems to me that with the rise of technology in the medical field, there will also have to be a rise in hospitals hiring these kinds of people who are not necessarily health care professionals.

Animals, however, cannot share how they feel once they adorn such prosthetics. I wanted to know how someone feels about his/her body receiving an additional part that is not made from human flesh. Unlike technology used in an artistic performance, this kind of technological component is making physical contact with one’s skin. Technology, unlike ever before, is becoming part of us. I found an organization called Prosthetic and Orthotic Associates (POA), who use a special kind of technology to create their prosthetics, and also provide training and support for their patients. Their focus is on the place of contact between skin and the prosthetic. The patented Negative Pressure Suspension

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Justine Clifton

(NPS) Socket Technology acts as a vacuum to collect all the air between the space, which creates a tighter, more comfortable seal. I was happy to find that their website had a button labeled “Client Stories” and I searched there for some personal insight. I found a story about Justine Clifton, a 25-year-old woman who was born with Proximal Femoral Focal Deficiency (PFFD) which caused her to not have a left hip bone nor a regular sized left femur (her left leg was then amputated above the knee). This disease also caused her to have abnormally short arms, and few fingers. Clifton described how she was teased as a child, and how her condition left her with low self-esteem. However, after going to POA, she was able to regain confidence and do things she never dreamed were possible, like running. After reading her story, it was clear how much joy and gratitude patients like Clifton have regarding their technical extensions. This equipment is not seen as merely replacing something that is lost, but giving people a tool to accomplish a goal that was not feasible without it. Clifton did not really talk about the ethics of a fake limb, but I am finding that ethics and the philosophy of it all is irrelevant when you look at how patients welcome their new body parts.

So what about the surface of prosthetics? These specialized pieces of hardware cannot sense touch, feel warmth or react to pain. What then? Or, really, are those sensations important? People in need of replacement body parts sure think so. The development of artificial skin is a fairly recent invention that is aiming to give people this luxury. I read an article in the MIT Technology Review about how a group of Korean and American scientists

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Smart skin prototype

worked to produce a fake skin with the sensing capabilities of real skin. The scientists were able to attach sensors onto pieces of polymer, giving the material characteristic stretching ability. When the skin touches something, signals are sent to the brain with registers this contact. However, the scientists are yet to manufacture skin that lets the user could actually “feel” the touched object. Once this artificial skin is perfected, I can see countless applications, from hospitals to battle fields. But, for a minute, let’s imagine that the skin suddenly has all the capabilities of normal skin. How does this affect someone’s perception of sensual interaction? If I had this skin on my prosthetic hand and I touched an apple, would this touch be as personal? Would I say that I touched the apple or the skin touched the apple? Should this matter, or should we care one way or the other? Perhaps I am going too far here, but with the influx of technology replacing the personal aspects of our bodies, like touch, I cannot help but wonder about these mind dilemmas. Will there ever be a skin that has full human abilities? My guess is that this may be one place where technology cannot compete with nature. Although I have underestimated its abilities before..

 

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