Christopher Hutchison’s world was turned upside down in July 2009 when he was just 17 years old.
The Swiss teenager, recently graduated from a high school in Geneva, was standing on platform at a railway station, leaning against the open window of a train and chatting with friends when suddenly the train pulled away without warning. He tumbled into the gap and was crushed between the train and the platform. The injuries he sustained from the accident resulted in the amputation of both legs: below the knee on the left, and above the knee on the right. After months of recovery, Hutchison was finally ready to get fitted with prosthetic legs so that he could learn to walk again. The arduous process involved having his residual limb covered in plaster to make a cast, then using that plaster cast to create a model. That model was the basis for the final plastic socket, which required numerous rounds of fitting and adjustments.
For patients like Hutchison, the traditional process of designing the prosthetic limb so that it fits properly and can effectively support a person’s body weight can take weeks, and the end product is often uncomfortable or even painful. Which in turn, makes the entire prosthetic limb difficult to use.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates there are about 30 million amputees around the world — four out of five live in the developing world, and many have no access to prosthetics. A new prosthetic leg can cost anywhere between $5,000 to $50,000, and high-end options can cost up to $100,000. And these are not one-off purchases: Even top-of-the-line prosthetics typically have to be replaced after only three to five years of wear and tear, and even more frequently for growing children. Even if one can afford the thousands of dollars, WHO estimates there is a shortage of 40,000 trained prosthetists to meet the demand.