University students make assistive devices for veterans

A cane that lifts legs, gripe-assisting glove and mobile shower stall were revealed at the VA Medical Center

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Detroit — Vietnam veteran George Holewski will be able to move his feet in and out of his car more easily, thanks to a team of college students who spent their senior year creating the Walk & Lift cane.

Chris VanOverbeke demonstrates the Lift-Assist Cane, a leg-lift device which quickly converts from a standard cane into a stirrup device, a project by University of Detroit Mercy for their final exams before graduation.

The invention looks like a standard cane that can support 250 pounds, but when you push a button, a stirrup pops out of the end that can be used to lift feet.

Holewski, 66, of Warren has multiple sclerosis — a nerve-damaging disease that has weakened his leg strength — but he said anybody with impaired mobility could benefit from the device.

“I think it’s genius,” he said at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center. “It’s helped me with getting in and out of cars a lot. When I sit in a car, a lot of times I can’t get my legs up high enough to get them over the hump. You always will see an elderly person trying to get in a car and the people with them will have to pick their feet up and put them in. (The cane) gives you the opportunity to be more self-sufficient.”

About 35 mechanical engineering and nursing students from the University of Detroit Mercy and biomedical engineering students from Lawrence Technological University spent a year designing assistive technology devices for veterans or other people with a disabilities.

While such projects have previously been revealed at UDM, this was the first year the students showcased their inventions at the VA Medical Center, where clients got to judge if the devices would truly make their lives easier.

Corina Malone (right) and Lydia Jacob present the pressure ulcer avoidance cushion, the device is a cushion with a programmable pressure-relieving pads to reduce the risk of pressure unlcers.

On Friday, five groups of students showed off the capstone projects, which included the lift-assist cane; a grip-assisting glove that senses muscle commands; a mobile shower stall for wheelchair users; a cushion with programmable pressure-relieving pads that reduce the risk of pressure on ulcers; and a leg spreader that helps users stretch their legs without the aid of a physical therapist.

Over the past eight years, dozens of veterans recommended by the Detroit office of the Veterans Benefit Administration have received these life-enhancing devices. Those involved say there’s not another program like this in the country.

The program started when Darrell Kleinke, UDM chair of mechanical engineering, was tasked with creating a mechanical engineering design capstone for seniors. He decided to have students develop a product that would help improve lives, and asked Molly McClelland, an assistant professor in the McAuley School of Nursing and the College of Health Professions, to join as a consultant the first year.

Seeing a learning opportunity, she had her nursing students participate the following year. And for the past three years, biomedical engineering students under Mansoor Nasir, an assistant professor in the LTU College of Engineering, joined the effort.

McClelland said students from the three disciplines collaborate well and make up for each other’s lack of knowledge. For instance, the nursing students can explain the health ramifications of a client with cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis and step in for “therapeutic communication.”

“The mechanical engineers are really good at design and building, but to have them around people kind of freaks them out because they never had that experience,” she said.

Each team receives about $2,000 to build a device that fulfills a client’s needs and is not on the market.

“It can’t be something they can go out and buy,” McClelland said.

Leo LaBond, a 23-year-old UDM mechanical engineering student from Lake Orion, worked on the Walk & Lift team. He said they hope to patent the product and sell it for $150 in pharmacies or on by 2019. The best part, he said, was getting to work directly with Holewski, whom they visited every three to four weeks for feedback on the prototype.

“Typically with engineering, you have a diagram and then you send that to someone else, and it’s easy to forget in the process where it ends up. And it ends up in the customer's hand,” LaBond said. “We worked with him directly the whole time, so it was really nice to see as it progressed, and at the very end, hand it to him ourselves.”

Veteran Russell Stewart was interested in the student projects to help veterans. The students presented their devices to veterans in Detroit on Friday April 21, 2017 at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit.

Each professor has their own grading system. McClelland requires an end-of-semester reflection paper and evaluates how well they meet deadlines and work as a team. Kleinke, meanwhile, hands out As if the client is happy with his or her product.

Judging by the smiles and thumbs-ups flashed after presentations Friday, the students all earned top marks.

Kenyatta Hunter, for one, was so excited about his leg spreader, called the StretchPro, he said he felt like “a kid in a candy shop.” The 46-year-old West Bloomfield resident was in a motorcycle accident in 1993, which resulted in spinal cord damage. To strengthen his legs, he attends physical therapy, but he said it’s costly and time-consuming.

“Today I went to physical therapy, and it took three people to spread my gait to where this one machine does for a fraction of the cost,” he said, referring to the device the students estimate will cost $200. “So my one session in therapy might be $300 just for today, just to stretch me out, and this one device would do the same thing. And I could be at home.”

Last year, a group worked with the program’s first woman veteran who lived alone with her two dogs. Due to a degenerative spinal condition, McClelland said the woman found it hard to bend over to fill her dogs’ food and water dishes. So the students outfitted her walker with a platform that lowered with the push of a button. She could then scoot the ledge under the dishes, push the button and the tray would rise.

“Then she could fill it with water and dog food, and she could push it back down,” McClelland said. “That way she could feed and give water to her dogs without having to bend over.”

Gary Kuleck, UDM dean of the College of Engineering and Science, noted that the devices are “low-tech solutions,” which can better serve clients.

“Yes, you can make fancy robotics and all that, but the client is going to walk out of here with their product today,” Kuleck said. “What happens in three months if something is not functioning? With a sophisticated device, it’s dead. But these solutions are sturdy, and they’re likely to last quite a long time.”

Several current and former teams are working with UDM School of Law to apply for patents that will allow them to mass produce their products.

The whole point is to improve the quality of lives, McClellend said.

“Ultimately, it would be phenomenal if we could start producing these devices so more people have them available,” she said. “That’s the next step — to figure out how to take this one design that’s helping this one client and make it for more people, because if one client has this, there’s hundreds that could use this.”

On Friday, Holewski left with not only a tool to help him move around, but seven friends he didn’t have before the project began.

“I enjoyed every minute of it,” he said.

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Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg