'E-nabling' Shane: Finger Lakes boy learning to use prosthetics

Gwen Chamberlain/Penn Yan Chronicle
Shane Benson grips a toothbrush as his brother Jacob (left), mother Joy, and Dr. Jon Schull look on. One of the hand's designers participated in the fitting from Scotland via video chat on Schull's iphone.

For most 6-year-old boys, the simple act of eating Skittles out of a small bag might be nothing more than an afternoon treat. For Shane Benson, enjoying that snack last Friday was a totally new experience because he was holding the bag with his new left hand.

Every day since then, Shane has been discovering things he can do that he had never done before in his life. A new prosthetic arm and hand, created by a team of designers using a 3D printer, has helped him open new doors.

As his mother Joy and older brother Jacob looked on April 12, Shane opened a late birthday gift in the nurse’s office at Penn Yan Elementary School. In the package he found the green Hulk-like arm and hand that fit on his left arm, giving him something he’s never had - a second hand.

Soon after the arm became part of him, he told his mother, “It feels great!”  The next day, at home, he was walking around the family’s Dresden home trying to pick things up, according to his mother. “He even tried to pick up the cat, but it was too heavy,” she said.

Now, she and Shane will be working on ways to make the prosthetic fit better, and other ways to enhance his experience. She already has ideas for adaptations to help him improve the leverage he needs for some tasks.

Shane’s arm is the first full forearm that has come out of Dr. Jon Schull’s lab, so Joy is looking forward to helping with experimentation.

Shane was born with most of his left forearm missing, but Joy put off looking into prosthetics until he showed signs of struggling without a left hand. That happened last year in Pre-Kindergarten, when he found it difficult to hold the paper he was trying to draw or color on.

With the help of Penn Yan Elementary Nurse Kristen Bray, Joy and Shane became acquainted with Dr. Schull, founder of e-Nable, an online philanthropic community that designs, customizes and fabricates 3D-printed prosthetic hands and arms for children and adults with upper limb differences.

Joy, Shane, and Jacob traveled to Schull’s lab in Rochester in December for measurement. The plan was to have the new appendage ready for this month, before Dr. Schull’s work calls him out of the country, and in time for Shane to have the arm for a few weeks to work with an Occupational Therapist in school.

That meant a couple of key people couldn’t be part of Friday’s fun. One of the designers took part via a video chat from Scotland, but Bray was out of town for a family event. 

Within minutes of opening the package Friday, Shane ignored the questions of the adults, and made a beeline to another student in the nurse’s office, eager to show off his new arm. Then, with little prompting, he began finding ways to use it — to hold onto a small jar while he removed the top, then retrieved a nut and bolt from inside the jar. He grabbed a toothbrush, and a pen, and held onto various random items around the nurse’s office.

And Saturday, he showed the new hand to his father, Stephan Benson Jr. of Hilton, a truck driver who is only home every six weeks, via a video call. 

Within 24 hours of having his new hand, he declared the best thing so far was being able to hold onto his tablet to play video games.