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Students Print Farmer a New Arm

Jake Hubbard lost his arm in a farm accident, and a middle school class made a prosthesis for him with a 3-D printer.

Farming is a dangerous business. According to the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, farmers and ranchers are 2½ times more likely than the general public to sustain an injury that results in the amputation of a limb. 

In 2013, Jake Hubbard, who farms 450 acres, raises livestock, and operates a spraying business with his father near Chana, Illinois, became one of those farmers. 

While removing a large wheel from a piece of equipment, he slipped in the mud, and the wheel pinned him. He was discovered the next day, with his back broken in three places and his arm so badly injured it had to be amputated below the elbow.

Hubbard was in the hospital for 30 days following the accident, battling infections and healing in a body cast. “It took two months before I could get up and move,” he says. 

The Battle begins

Eight months after his injury and before receiving his first prosthesis, Hubbard returned to work. Learning to do everyday tasks with only one arm was a challenge, but Hubbard says that wasn’t the most difficult adjustment. 

“It was a struggle to get off the painkillers,” he says. “People don’t want to talk about that, but they need to. That was the hardest part of my recovery, to be honest. Depression had begun to set in, as well, and even though my doctors didn’t want me to go back to work so soon, I knew I had to.”

Hubbard says without the support of his wife and children, he never would have made it through. 

When Hubbard received his prosthetic arm, it took six months to learn to use it. “I basically had to rewire my brain,” he says. “The little things in life like buttoning my pants are things I had to relearn, but I am a strong-willed person. I was determined from day one to get right back up on my feet and go.”

Since the business of farming is a dirty one, the prosthesis quickly became covered in dirt and grease. “It’s nearly impossible to clean, so I really only used it for work,” he says. That left his arm exposed the rest of the time and at risk of being bumped, which he says is extremely painful.

Help from an unlikely source

Hubbard struck up a conversation at church one Sunday in 2016 with Vic Worthington, an eighth-grade science teacher at nearby Rochelle Middle School. Worthington has a history of getting his students involved in outside-the-box learning opportunities, and he approached his class with the idea of creating an everyday prosthesis for Hubbard.

Due to a grant from the America’s Farmers Grow Rural Education program sponsored by the Monsanto Fund, Worthington was able to upgrade the district’s entire science department in 2015, including purchasing a 3-D printer. 

“The students were immediately on board,” Worthington says. “Some students embraced the mechanical engineering and design angle; others got into the printing and assembly.” About 15 students worked on the project throughout the school year, and a professional engineer with a background in prosthetics helped with the design. 

The whole community got involved, including the local Fastenal dealer, who helped the class figure out the best type of fasteners to use and then donated them. A community member donated the plastic filament. The total cost for materials was around $120, Worthington says, compared with the $10,000 titanium-based, heavy-duty prosthesis Hubbard uses for work.

Trying is believing

In May, Hubbard went into Worthington’s classroom to try the arm in front of the students for the first time.

“The kids, who normally work very hard to appear cool at all times, were wide-eyed with excitement,” Worthington says. “Jake’s an impressive man who survived something that would have killed most people. After hearing about him so much, they were pretty fired up to see him in person and to have him try the arm.”

Hubbard slipped on the prosthesis, bent his elbow, and the fingers moved and began to close. Although the team continues to make adjustments, Hubbard is extremely pleased. 

“It’s not completely functional yet, but it will be,” he says. “I can use this arm at home and when we go places, which is something I’ve been wanting for a long time.” Aside from the function, the prosthesis also protects his arm.

“I can’t compliment Vic and the kids enough. It made me feel good to see them so involved and excited,” Hubbard says. “My hat is also off to the school administration and to Monsanto for allowing this to happen. It’s an amazing gift.” 

 

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