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UAB engineering students create walker to aid Children’s of Alabama patients

The University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Engineering has teamed up with Children’s of Alabama to bring an exciting new piece of equipment to young patients, particularly those who have undergone spinal fusion surgery.

The halo traction walker was produced by senior UAB design students in Dr. Alan Eberhardt’s class as a part of the Biomedical Engineering Capstone Senior Design Course.  It has been created to maintain traction of the spine, which is a corrective decompression process that stretches and straightens the vertebrae, allowing patients to keep some mobility post operation without negatively affecting the rehabilitation process.

Steve Thompson, manager of the Design and Fabrication Laboratory in the UAB Materials Processing and Applications Development Center, began working on the design in 2020, but was interrupted by the COVID shutdown.

Thompson picked the project back up after the pandemic ended.

“This was one of those projects where students were able to create a device that was needed but didn’t exist in the marketplace,” Thompson said. “There isn’t a big enough demand to make it profitable for a medical device company to manufacture these. Even if they did, each one would have to be customized for each patient. So, doctors and physical therapists end up improvising and cobbling something together for each patient.

“This project was different. I was hesitant at first because we really had no funding for it. But seeing the effort Children’s was going to, I knew they really needed this to progress further.”

Thompson gave credit to Eberhardt for his role in developing the new piece of medical equipment.

“Dr. Eberhardt has been our champion for years now. He connected us with Dr. Sicking, who helped fund our research and fill in the gap to get the needed parts for the walker.”

Eberhardt in turn said Dr. Rhett Wheeler at Children’s has been a major partner in the UAB senior design classes.

“We had already been working on the third-generation prototype. Dr. Wheeler sent us the specifications he needed, and we were able to have it over to the hospital later that afternoon,” he said.

Thompson said it has been exciting to see the patients using the walker.

“It’s been very rewarding to witness our efforts go directly toward helping people, especially young people,” he said. “Most of our work is research-based, and while we do see good things happen, it’s typically a much longer process.

“With this project, we were able to witness the fruition much faster, and it’s a great feeling knowing the work of our team has had such a positive impact.”

Austen Shipley is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News.

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