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A helping hand: Connecticut man builds prosthetic for local 12-year-old boy
Will Miller, 12, adjusts his new 3D prosthetic arm he received through Enabling the Future. Top photo, Miller grasps an apple with his the arm, which he opens and closes by using his elbow. - photo by Kelly Whitmire

The first things you notice about Will Miller are his outgoing personality and sense of humor, but he has some other unique features, too.

Will, 12, received a new 3D printed prosthetic arm Oct. 10 through Enabling the Future (also known as e-NABLE), a network of those seeking prosthetics and the volunteers who print them. 

He is still getting used to it. 

“It’s been a bit hard trying to learn how to use it because I’ve never had an arm for 12 years,” he said. “It’s pretty weird having it, but I mean, hey, it’s pretty convenient … you can shake hands, you can fist bump people.”

Will’s mom, Debbie Miller, said getting the arm took more than two years.

Before getting the arm from e-NABLE, the family worked with an organization out of the University of Central Florida to link Will with a prosthetic arm maker, but that fell through when the volunteer lost his full-time job and could not devote as much time to making prosthetic arms, which also dropped Will to the bottom of the request list.

Before that, Will got a prosthetic hand through e-NABLE, which wasn’t exactly what the family needed.

Then in July, Will’s mom, Debbie Miller, put out another listing for an arm. Within a week, two volunteers had responded they could make the arm.

The hand has limited motion, but Miller is happy to use it for fist bumps. - photo by Kelly Whitmire
The family chose John Landreneau from Connecticut, who originally bought a 3D printer for personal projects but felt there was a better use.

“It kind of hit me that it really isn’t worth buying the printer if it isn’t running most of the time, so I started looking for some charitable means and stumbled upon the e-NABLE community,” he said.

After making a few arms for people in Ghana, Landreneau picked Will’s as his first American request. 

“He said that he wanted that particular model, which looks like the [comic book] character Deadpool’s,” Landreneau said. “Deb Miller gave me his dimensions then I kind of tweaked the parameters in the model and printed them out. My end is fairly easy; the printer does the majority of the time involved.”

Landreneau said his smallest arm, for a child in Ghana, took about 60 hours to complete, while adult arms could take 120-160 hours.

Each arm is made up of about 20 pieces that Landreneau then has to assemble, including some parts that must be baked in an oven. 

“Baking a hand,” Will said. “That’s weird. 

Will’s arm ends just a few inches below his elbow and moving his elbow inward moves strings that close the hand. 

“It can pick up small lightweight things,” Landreneau said. “I think the goal is to produce an arm that can pick up … a water bottle.”

Miller said it was unlikely Will would have gotten an arm if not for Landreneau and the organization. 

“Insurance companies tend to not want to spend a lot of money for prosthetics for kids because they’re constantly growing and that makes it obsolete quickly,” she said. “The 3D printing technology makes it so much less expensive.”

She said Will has learned to do tasks without the arm, so learning to use it has been an adjustment, but a bigger change may be in how others perceive his arm.

“Instead of kids thinking, ‘oh no, something bad happened to him, he’s lost part of his arm, oh my gosh.’ Because kids always think there was an accident,” she said. “Now when you have this arm, it’s something that’s cool.  Kids aren’t as concerned with, ‘oh my gosh, what happened to you?’ It’s like, ‘oh wow, look at that arm. It’s so cool.’”

Will is also serving as a test subject of sorts for Landreneau, who is constantly tweaking the design of the arms and adding new features.

“The request I have from [a woman] in Turkey, she wants to be able to use some utensils, so I’ll be able to send to Will the prototype and he can give me the feedback quickly on whether it works or not or what I need to change, so I can get a solid product out to the international folks,” Landreneau said.

Another addition would let Will type with the hand. His mother is grateful for that.

“This is the beginning of our journey because John wants to make attachments, he wants to see what he can do to make it better for Will,” Debbie Miller said. “Then what he learns through Will, he’ll share with other people he makes arms for.” 

View the December edition of 400 The Life here.