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When DIY meets medicine: UNC's Hillsborough hospital to get high-tech 'makerspace'

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The UNC Hillsborough hospital's new makerspace features various tools like 3D printers and a laser cutter. Occupational therapy assistant Evwell Batten said he was most excited to use a large 3D printer called the Stratasys F270.
Sophie Mallinson

On the fourth floor of UNC’s Hillsborough hospital, there’s a rehab gym. Occupational therapy assistant Evwell Batten calls it the “treehouse,” as floor-to-ceiling windows overlook a blanket of green. Recently, this treehouse has gone high tech with a new room, called the “makerspace.”

It’s about the size of a dorm room, and its walls are lined with 3D printers, a laser cutter, and a vacuum forming machine. Various drawers pulled open with a clang reveal numerous tools like wrenches. But on this day, Batten is working with the sewing machine, creating modified washcloths for patients who have lost fine motor skills.

By sewing two washcloths together and adding a velcro strap, Batten's modified washcloths can be worn like a glove.
Sophie Mallinson

This makerspace is a partnership between the hospital and UNC-Chapel Hill's Be A Maker Program, or BeAM. The program is typically for students, who can get training on tools and access makerspaces across UNC campuses. But this new makerspace, called RehaBeAM, is the first of its kind in the UNC hospital system.

“It felt like Christmas combined with my birthday,” Batten said, when he first learned about the new space.

Growing up, he’d been an ambitious fisherman, making improvised rods out of bamboo sticks when his initial fishing rod inevitably broke. A makerspace then seemed like a perfect place to apply out-of-the-box ideas.

“With me making splints – custom splints – oh man,” Batten said. “I could really take this to the next level.”

Practicing medicine: Beyond the science

In the new space, rehabilitation specialists can design and create things like mobility leg straps, custom splints, or special joysticks.

Splints are used to immobilize certain body parts. Batten said the traditional method of creating a hand splint involves outlining a hand onto a sheet of material, cutting the material up, and placing it into a hot water tank so that the material will melt enough to conform to a patient’s hand.

But the makerspace could reduce the number of steps in that process. Splints could be 3D printed, or Batten could scan a patient’s hand and 3D print a replica of it, then design a better fitting splint around the replica. Batten said access to the makerspace then means these items can be more custom, time efficient and potentially cheaper than traditional methods.

“It's a safe space to go and play around and tinker,” said Kelly Fletcher, the rehab unit’s therapies manager. “That's what we need, right? That art and creativity side of medicine.”

A vacuum forming machine and 3D printers line the left wall of the new makerspace. The right side of the room features a large blue laser cutter, tool-filled drawers and a sewing machine.
Sophie Mallinson

Fletcher said there have been talks of creating this kind of space since 2018, with $130,000 initially put towards it. It could still be half a year before the makerspace is fully up and running, but until then, Fletcher said the hospital is training staff on equipment, and getting them excited about it.

“If you have a problem and you can think of a solution, then you can go and make it in this space,” Fletcher said. “So, if somebody has a hard time putting on a certain splint or something for their foot, we can create something in this space that allows them to be more independent doing that. Anytime we can improve patient experience and patient outcomes, that's absolutely what we want.”

Improved Access and Equity

BeAM volunteer and physicist Jeff Olander knows firsthand what he described as the “game-changing” power of makerspaces.

“A lot of times when you have a disability, you're used to forging your own path,” Olander said.

In a locker near UNC-Chapel Hill's Murray Hall makerspace, Olander stores a few items for his power wheelchair. He made some items, like an adjustable cup holder, by reappropriating and combining products bought off Amazon. Other items, he 3D-printed at the space, like small joystick parts.

Olander said it's important to include some whimsy in designs, especially for items meant to be used long-term. This 3D printed T-Rex was designed by Olander to hold a mouse cable. Also on the table are black sticks that help mount a wheelchair joystick. These can break easily, so Olander designed and 3D printed a blue prototype.
Sophie Mallinson

Olander also brought out a neon green T-Rex that he 3D-printed for someone, which serves as a cable holder.

“If you're going to do it, you might as well make it kind of fun,” Olander remarked.

Olander said UNC’s makerspaces have allowed him to craft shortcuts. If he has an assistive device that breaks, he said obtaining replacement parts requires a costly and lengthy process.

“If you break an arm, you can't use it until it heals,” Olander said. “Well, if I break a joystick, I can’t drive around until it's fixed.”

According to Olander, when a device breaks, the issue must first be assessed. Then, someone has to write a report to order new parts, which is sent to insurance to approve. Once the part is actually ordered, there are wait times for it to come in, followed by more waiting for a repair person to replace the broken piece.

So, Olander said being able to design his own assistive devices can save him money, but even more importantly, time.

“These are things that aren't just desirables,” Olander said. “These are things that are essential to your way of being, your independence, or your health in some cases. So, the more time it takes to get them, the more of a sacrifice it is for you.”

To help shorten assistive device wait times for others, Olander has helped develop an organization called AiM, or Accessibility in Making, along with co-runner Aurorah Arndt. He said understanding the abilities and limitations of makerspace tools is just as important as having access to them. So, Olander said he wants to teach other people with disabilities how to use makerspaces to create devices tailored to individual needs.

Jeff Olander (pictured) and Aurorah Arndt run the AiM initiative at UNC-Chapel Hill. Olander said the goal of AiM is to foster a community of people with disabilities who can use makerspace tools to solve accessibility challenges.
Sophie Mallinson

He said that technology coming to a hospital is just another way to bring easier access to assistive technology.

“It's important to bring the resource to the person, rather than expect the person to find the resource,” Olander said. “So, if you can bring the resource to the hospital, then it's that much closer to the people that are hopefully going to use it.”

'Joining the MCU'

Batten described the sewing machine as one of the most-used tools in the space. In addition to his modified washcloths, Batten has used the machine for mobility leg straps, finger splints, and clothing alterations for patients.
Sophie Mallinson

Once UNC’s Hillsborough hospital’s makerspace is fully operational next year, it's expected to be mainly for staff use. Though, Olander said it's crucial for patients to be heavily involved in developing the assistive devices they’ll be using.

While the first one is still getting off the ground, eventually, the goal is for these spaces to spread to other UNC hospitals too. Until then, occupational therapist Evwell Batten said he can appreciate his hospital being one-of-a-kind.

“You go into the rehab gym and it's like, this looks like something from Marvel Comics,” Batten said. “And then you have this type of equipment that makes you feel even more super, and just on the level of an X-Man.”

And while he may not be Wolverine, the new makerspace may make Batten just a little more unstoppable when it comes to helping patients.

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Sophie Mallinson is a daily news intern with WUNC for summer 2023. She is a recent graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill, where she studied journalism. Sophie is from Greenville, N.C., but she enjoys the new experiences of the Triangle area. During her time as a Tar Heel, Sophie was a reporter and producer for Carolina Connection, UNC-Chapel Hill’s radio program. She currently is heavily involved in science education at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.
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