Assembling prostheses is part of a team-building exercise sponsored by Helping Hands, a program of Odyssey Teams in Chico, California, USA.
At first, it appears to be a brainteaser exercise. Working with intense concentration, groups of three are assembling an assortment of molded plastic and small metal parts into a functioning unit, guided by an illustrated instruction booklet.
Camilia Fernandez, 12, of Popayán, Colombia, received a new hand.
The groups are seated at round tables in the conference room of a global software company south of San Francisco, and their immediate goal in this employee team-building event is to combine skills and share insights to solve a common problem.
But something more profound is also at stake: the future of adults and children in developing countries who have lost hands and parts of their arms in land mine explosions and domestic and work-related accidents. They have difficulty performing even the simplest tasks, such as feeding and washing themselves. Without a functional prosthetic hand, they will be dependent on others for the rest of their lives.
When the team-building session ends, 50 prosthetic hands – with Velcro straps to secure them to residual limbs, and plastic fingers that can clamp onto a fork, a pencil, or a tool – will be packaged in zipped bags bearing the names of the assembling trio, their photo, and their original artwork. Soon after, a group of Rotarians will board a plane to deliver the bags – perhaps in Colombia or Kenya or a dozen other developing countries – at no cost to the recipients.
Scanning the large gathering of busy assemblers, you immediately notice that each person is attempting to insert and fasten even the smallest dowels, pins, and screws with only one hand. The other hand is enclosed in a large blue mitt. The exercise leaders from Helping Hands – a program of Odyssey Teams in Chico, Calif. – ask participants to wear the mitts so they will experience the difficulty of performing manual tasks with only one good hand. Trying to hold and insert the tiny dowel pivot for a slippery plastic thumb, one woman says to her co-workers, “I never appreciated the privilege of having all 10 fingers as much as I do right now.”
Among the software company’s international finance personnel at this event is Peter Maas, an attorney based in Utrecht, the Netherlands, who’s been a Rotarian for 15 years. “I joined,” he says, “because you can actually mean something to the rest of the world, and you can be more effective as a member of a group. Like today. Three of us fabricate this prosthesis together, each using only one of our hands – basically impossible if we tried to do it alone.” After his team’s work is completed, Maas reflects on the assembly experience: “Gratifying. I hope to get my club in Amersfoort involved.”
Rotarians and others have distributed more than 8,200 of the prosthetic hands in 57 countries, most of them assembled from kits at similar corporate team-building events and at Rotary club, church, and civic gatherings.
The organization behind the manufacture, construction, and distribution of the hands has about as many moving parts as the devices themselves. At its core is the Ellen Meadows Prosthetic Hand Foundation, based in Ashland, Ore. The foundation supports the LN-4 project, which industrial designer Ernie Meadows and his wife, Marj, launched in memory of their daughter Ellen, who died in an auto accident. By 2005, Meadows was busy developing a low-cost, light, durable, functional prosthesis to benefit people who had lost their hands. The project’s mission statement specifies that no one can profit from the production or distribution of the devices and that recipients can’t be charged for them.
Though not a Rotarian himself, Meadows called on Rotarian friends to help raise money to manufacture the hand he’d designed. He also turned for technical help to Rotarian Michael Mendonca, part owner of a plastic injection company in Menlo Park, Calif.
“Ernie was passionate about his project’s mission, but there were some technical issues. The hand needed a soft rubber grip on the inside of the digits,” Mendonca recalls. “He found out that our company could do that. I shared Ernie’s prototype prosthetic hand with my club, the Rotary Club of Pleasant Hill. On the spot, our club asked how much it would take to make a dozen prototypes. We guessed about $5,000, and got it in no time. My wife, Janet, and I connected with a group of Rotarians in Seattle and went to Vietnam with them to test these prototypes. But we had a hard time finding potential recipients. We also quickly realized that there were issues with the color of the hands and with the strapping mechanism; traveling all over Vietnam, we put on only five or six of the hands, so it was very frustrating. When we came back, we met with Ernie and made a whole bunch of changes to the design, particularly in the stapping.”
Mendonca looks back on those first daunting efforts as the groundwork for future success. “We headed out to Kenya, made other design changes in the field, and this time, used Rotaractors and Interactors to find possible recipients. We had learned that Rotarians in developing countries are generally from a wealthier, somewhat privileged class, and we needed younger people willing to go pound on doors. They helped us find about 75 people. Six months later, we did a follow-up and found that all the recipients our team was able to locate were still using the hand every day.”
That vote of confidence provided the impetus for the Meadows Foundation – of which Mendonca is now president – and for ramping up the manufacture of the prostheses. Detailing the steps involved, Mendonca conveys the exuberance that is pervasive among the members of LN-4’s board of directors. Among them are Lain Hensley, chief operating officer of Odyssey Teams, which conducts the Helping Hands corporate team-building events, and Rotarian Candy Pierce, past governor of District 5160. Pierce introduced Hensley to LN-4 at a leadership conference, and led the effort with Mendonca – after the successful Africa trip – to pilot the project in her district.
“It was destined to be ours,” Pierce says. “At the exact moment in 2006 when the foundation was ready for Michael’s company to create the molds for mass production, at a cost of $50,000, I got a call from the district’s finance committee. ‘We’ve got too much money,’ they told me. ‘We have to spend it.’ I asked them how much, and they said, ‘Fifty thousand dollars.’ I said, ‘Hmmm, I think I have a match.’”
That money launched the project as an ongoing enterprise. “We were in business – our plastics company could turn out the hand molds,” says Mendonca. “But there was much more to do. Once you teach a recipient how to strap on the hand and use it, which doesn’t take long, you need to establish distribution, and then coach local people – usually Rotarians, physicians, nurses, and other volunteers – so they can become the teachers.”
Finding an acceptable color for the prostheses was another challenge. “We experimented with rainbow colors and clear plastic,” Mendonca recalls, “but nothing worked. The users wanted hands that blended in as much as possible. So we found a website that had a code for the average skin tone of the world, called ‘cocoa puff.’”
Until now, Mendonca has mainly been discussing the logistics of the project. But when he talks about his personal feelings, he shifts gears. “There are no words to describe seeing someone use our hand for the first time. It’s deeply fulfilling, but also humbling. You take a step back and realize this came about as a result of someone else’s incredible trauma, so you don’t feel giddy; you feel grateful to be a part of it.”
Mendonca estimates that at least a quarter of a million people worldwide need a prosthetic hand. Pierce travels around the United States raising funds at Rotary clubs, with the goal of distributing 10,000 hands each year. The LN-4 project, she says, has changed her life.
“In Chechnya, one doctor, Khassan Baiev, has helped us distribute 150 hands. We would never have been able to make a difference for any of these people if not for this project.”
Rotarians continue to play a vital role in global distribution. At their own expense, people like Jim Yoder, another LN-4 board member, fly just about anywhere on behalf of the project, connecting with local Rotarians and enlisting the help of Rotaractors. “I attached a hand for a woman in Peru and showed her how to use it, and she went into the next room and wrote nonstop for two hours,” Yoder recalls. A member of the Rotary Club of Walnut Creek Sunrise, Yoder recently returned from Bogotá, Colombia. “The best way to describe that experience is to quote from an article written by one of our team: ‘Fourteen Rotary clubs, nine days, 126 recipients, 200 hands, and 100 percent awesome.’ We traveled with the governor of District 4290 [Eastern Colombia] and his wife. They set up a project in their district and did all the outreach. Some clubs really didn’t know exactly what we were up to; they just trusted us.”
Making a difference
Now that they know, Yoder says, they’re committed – especially the Rotaractors who got involved. “One of them, Ricardo Jaramillo and his club, the Rotaract Club of Cali San Fernando, Colombia, have distributed 500 hands over the past few years. As Ricardo explained, when you put a hand on for someone, you’re making a difference and you can see it. Kids, grandmothers, victims of domestic violence – the bad stuff already happened; we are part of the solution. One woman, 62, tells me, ‘I just want to be able to hold a rag and clean the table.’ I ask a little boy what he wants to do with his hand now that he’s got it and he says, ‘I don’t know,’ and meanwhile he’s scratching his other arm with it. It’s the little stuff, it all adds up.”
Another personal reward for Yoder is bridging generations. “The more gray hair we get, the harder it is for young people to talk to us. But when you’re working together attaching hands, you’re all in the flow, no sweat. I love that aspect of it. Also, young people are very quick, so when we teach Rotaractors how to put on the hands and train the recipients, they get it in a flash.”
Through Odyssey Teams and Rotarian groups, LN-4 volunteers are planning to link distributors of the hands with local clubs in more than two dozen countries. “Things are happening so fast, we can’t track all the possible trips,” says Yoder, with evident delight.
If a hand is the symbol of connection between two people, the opportunity to help another re-establish that bond and overcome feelings of isolation and dependency is a gift all its own. It takes only a few words for Yoder to describe the rewards he has found working with hundreds of others through the LN-4 project: “Each time we fit a hand,” he says, “it makes my heart grow.