High school student's lack of engineering training no obstacle in her development of device to treat phantom limb pain

High school student's lack of engineering training no obstacle in her development of device to treat phantom limb pain

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News & Events - Engineering News

November 30, 2011

A lack of a formal engineering education did not prevent one college student from developing a prosthetic device capable of allaying phantom limb pain, The New York Times reports.

Katherine Bomkamp is currently a student at West Virginia University, but during her frequent trips to the now-closed Walter Reed Army Medical Center, she said she often heard wounded veterans complain about the phantom limb pain they felt, a result of their injuries sustained abroad.

Bomkamp, whose father is a disabled Air Force veteran, affirmed that their pain inspired her to act, even though she was only a teenager with no science background. She did, however, apply the same principle doctors use when treating sports injuries in the development of her own prosthetic limb.

According to the Mayo Clinic, phantom limb pain affects those who have had an arm, leg or other appendage amputated. Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who have had a body part amputated often report phantom limb pain, which manifests exactly in the leg, arm or other body part that was removed. Physicians initially believed phantom limb pain was a psychological affliction, but now they recognize it results from a misfiring in the spinal cord and brain.

Bomkamp asserted that after studying the phenomenon, she believed that a device that applied warmth to the nerve endings could help lessen the severity of the pain. Still, she was a high school student and had no means by which to carry out the necessary research and design. Instead of abandoning her idea, though, she began calling local universities, asking whether any researchers would be interested in helping her carry out the work.

"It was all completely foreign to me. I had no interest in engineering before this," she said.

After countless emails, she chose to work with University of Maryland engineering professor Gilmer L. Blankenship, noting that the school was "closest to my house." She began spending Fridays at the university in its engineering laboratory, during which Blankenship and his colleagues helped teach her about biomechanics and basic engineering.

"They taught me electrical engineering from the bottom up – electrical programming, heat wiring," she said. "Basically, everything, they had to teach me."

They ultimately produced a prosthetic device that used heated socks to provide warmth. She reached out to nonprofit groups and other organizations to raise funding to manufacture the prosthetic limb, and she has since overseen the development of a number of new iterations of the device.

The artificial limb is "a very promising prototype for one of the possible ways for amputees to deal with phantom pain," according to American Orthotic Prosthetic Association coding and reimbursement director Joe McTernan.

As she awaits approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Bomkamp is pursuing a degree in political science, all the while running her own technology startup.

"I definitely don’t have the typical college student life," she told The Times.

Her experiences have helped to generate a prosthetic limb that could potentially help wounded military veterans and other amputees. It is still a prototype device, but the engineers currently working on the project are confident that it could be widely adopted within the medical community.


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