Living with a prosthetic leg is hard. It may be functional and custom-made uniquely for the user, but a prosthetic limb requires constant adjusting. For disabled persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina, this is frequently a long, painful, and expensive process, albeit necessary.
“People are delicate to everything. Once it starts pinching, the prosthesis can’t be used anymore, but we can’t explain that to anyone. It simply can’t be worn anymore,” we are told by Zenica-born Zahid Bjeloglavić. He has been using prosthetics for 26 years, ever since he lost his left leg above the knee in the war.
His first above-knee prosthesis, which he received from a foreign medical donor in late 1994, was basic. Since then he has changed it many times, making improvements to sections like the foot, the pylon, the knee joint — and, crucially, the socket, the most delicate part that comes into contact with skin.
In order to get new parts and new prostheses that do not cause irritation and allergies on their amputated limbs, disabled persons usually go through drawn-out processes in the public health care system. Disabled war veterans are faced with additional difficulties, as many of them have severe financial problems and are unable to invest in improving their prosthetics. Even though the mould for the socket (also called the shell) is manually made and customized in orthopedic workshops, prosthetic users often need a lot of time and adjustments to get a perfect aid that makes their mobility easier. This is why they are always looking for innovations.
And a graduate thesis of a mechanical engineering student in Zenica could help.
Ahmed Mujkanović graduated this week at the Mechanical Engineering Faculty in Zenica. This summer he didn’t take a break. At iDEAlab, his Faculty’s scientific research laboratory, he analysed several prostheses, in preparation for scanning and making a mould for the socket of Zahid Bjeloglavić’s prosthetic leg. He worked with the help of a 3D scanner and printer, which helped achieve greater precision and improvements in the manufacturing of medical aids than is the case with traditional manual modeling.
Innovations by mechanical engineering students could stimulate better practices, as well as improve functionality and comfortable use of aids for special categories of users, in compliance with legal and professional norms, Fuad Hadžikadunić, dean of the Mechanical Engineering Faculty in Zenica, explains.
“Naturally, such ventures imply cooperation among several institutions. This level of equipment, along with the use of other resources of our laboratories and measuring equipment, is a good foundation for further activities,” he adds.
He is proud of the innovative and hard work the students and professors have done, but this is not the first time. Since it was established in 2016, the iDEAlab spawned more than 50 projects, including significant contributions to the field of medicine. He particularly mentions the work they did in the past four months — designing medical protection equipment, which was another in a long line of projects carried out in cooperation with the Medical Faculty in Zenica.
When the crisis caused by the spreading of the corona virus started in BiH, many health care institutions did not have sufficient protection equipment. The situation in late March was that you could not find protection equipment in the market, and so Zenica Doctor Mersiha Mahmić Kaknjo approached her colleagues at the Medical Faculty. Soon afterwards, the experts, professors, and students from the two faculties adopted a model of the visor manufactured by the Czech company PRUSA, and with minor interventions in design optimization they put into operation all of the 3D printers they could lay their hands on in Zenica.
“Back then, that was a turning point for me,” Mahmić Kaknjo says. “It meant that my staff didn’t touch their faces with their hands. If nothing, no bodily fluids were sprinkled in their eyes, and at that moment it was priceless, truly priceless.”
Although 3D printers are not meant for mass production, the two Zenica faculties produced and distributed more than 1,300 visors in the past four months.
Such initiative and efforts in the fight against COVID-19 were recognized by the Swedish Embassy in BiH, which financed the procurement of 3D printers, scanners, and consumables for the Mechanical Engineering Faculties in Sarajevo, Tuzla, and Zenica, as well as for the Faculty of Natural Sciences and Mathematics in Banja Luka. The equipment was financed by Sweden, and secured through UNDP’s Green Economic Development (GED) project, financed by Sweden, whose goal is to create conditions to invest in energy efficiency and contribute to environmental protection and economic development of the country. The equipment was primarily used by the faculties to manufacture medical equipment when it was needed the most, but it also enabled students to simultaneously conduct research and innovate.
Without the new equipment, Ahmed Mujkanović would have been unable to do state-of-the-art and highest-precision modeling of the socket for leg prosthesis. He stresses he is not the only one who finds the equipment essential for his current work at the faculty.
“I’ll tell you how important the equipment is. In our lab, being printed on one of the printers is something for a professor working on his doctoral thesis. Another printer will make the prostheses for a colleague, which is her master thesis. Finally, the graduate thesis will be done on the third printer.”
After reading in the media about all of the things mechanical engineering students can do, representatives of Zenica’s Organization of Disabled War Veteran Amputees got in touch. Bjeloglavić recalls them asking whether it is possible to do improvements on their prostheses. Although, for the time being, making the moulds is just a student experiment, Bjeloglavić, who has 100-percent disability, expects a possible alternative to emerge and believes that this is going to contribute in the long run to improving the production of prosthetics in orthopedic workshops.
“Everything’s being done manually so far. There’s always a tiny flaw that appears and when it gets into contact with your skin, you get these pinches and sores, tears on the skin,” he says, stressing that he and other members of his association are hoping the new technology will show that improvements are possible. “We are convinced they are.”
For Mujkanović, this is a challenge and part of the plan that is going to make him turn down a job offer in Germany, in contrast to what hundreds of thousands of BiH citizens have done over the past several years.
Together with his colleagues, other soon-to-be mechanical engineers, he is preoccupied with finding new ways to use 3D modeling equipment. As for him personally, he would like to start his own business in the future.