James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital, in Tampa, Florida, is not the first hospital to have a 3D printer. It may be, on the other hand, the first hospital to print a therapeutic replica bullet. It likely won’t be the last.
As part of his recovery process, U.S. Navy veteran Laquan Taylor — victim of a carjacking in January 2015 that left him paralyzed — decided to craft a model of the bullet that took away his motion. To Taylor, the plastic bullet is like a talisman, says Jamie Kaplan, a recreational therapist who’s teaching veterans to use a 3D printer at the VA hospital. The point is to make the all-too-real actually visible and understandable in more concrete terms.
“My idea was for the patients to help design and produce their own assistive devices,” Kaplan told Inverse. “These guys are all military or former military. They’re combat-trained, they’re engineers.”
As far as a therapeutic bullet goes, Taylor approached Kaplan with the notion of printing a reminder of his trauma, a project Kaplan said could “turn out positive and or negative” for someone suffering from trauma. Kaplan ran the idea past hospital psychologists, and Taylor got the go ahead and his startlingly exact — down to the millimeter round — souvenir.
Kaplan raised the funds for an on-site printer, which the veterans have been using for the past several weeks, after hearing about Makerbots and other 3D printers in other prosthetic and orthotic hospital departments. What makes Kaplan a bit different is that he wanted to hand the controls over to his patients. For paralyzed or quadriplegic veterans 3D printing represents a return to tinkering as well as a chance to create literal coping mechanisms.
Kaplan encourages veterans to make physical models of their injuries. A model of Taylor’s thoracic vertebra, for instance, showed where the bullets had injured his spinal cord. The advantages over flat MRI images — which may be tougher to parse — become immediately apparent once a patient is holding the modeled injury in her or his hand. “I’m a tactile person,” says Kaplan. “For me to be able to hold it and manipulate it in my hand, that gives me true understanding.”