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Universitys 3-D printer helps children with disabilities
Physical therapy, visual communications partner to serve growing need
University of North Georgia physical therapy students Jessica Williams and Patricio Morchio, make sure the stabilizing device the school designed is fitted correctly to Nicolas Holbert, 6.

Nicolas Holbert rode Chaco around the stable enclosure, circle after circle, as physical therapy students held onto him on each side to keep his head stable.

“When we were at the hospital, they basically said he would never be able to do anything,” his mother, Sara Holbert, said.

Nicolas was nearly 2 when he fell in a pond and almost drowned; the incident resulted in cerebral anoxia, or a brain injury sustained from a severe lack of oxygen.

For Nicolas, it means he has symptoms similar to cerebral palsy. “But he can walk with assistance,” Sara Holbert said. “He can hold his head. He can move his arms on his own a little bit.

“Those are the things we were told he’d never be able to do, so we are just blessed to know Terrie (Millard, associate professor of physical therapy) and be able to come here to the university.”

Holbert has brought Nicolas to the Foundation Farms Equestrian Center in Dahlonega for four years, where physical therapy students with the University of North Georgia use hippotherapy with children with disabilities.

“We have a lot of children with really severe disabilities that come because a lot of places won’t do that with children with severe disabilities,” Millard said. “We can do it, because I have so many PT students.”

Hippotherapy uses horses as a therapeutic treatment strategy, according to the American Hippotherapy Association’s website.

The horse provides a stable base, while the rider can work on muscle control and movement.

“We can hold them on the horse, but we wanted to figure out a way to make it a little bit easier on the side walkers,” Millard said.

Enter the university’s arts department and the 3-D printer.

Using the printer, students can create various devices to accommodate people with disabilities.

For the horseback riders, extra brace support has been designed to better hold them on the horse, so the students walking alongside don’t have to provide so much support.

“This device is to help give them a little bit more stability on the horse so that they can work on their head control,” Millard said.

“Sometimes the side walkers help too much and they won’t let the movement of the horse give them any movement, so hopefully this will help the side walkers feel better about it.”

The departments have also used the 3-D printer to adapt tricycles for children with disabilities. Joseph Grillo, 12, got to try one out last year.

“When the students approached us about this 3-D project, we were like ‘Yeah, sign us up!’” his mom, Jane Grillo, said.

Joseph, who has cerebral palsy, also got to test the braces on horseback Monday, riding Chaco around the enclosure after Nicolas had his turn.

The brace wraps around the waist to provide core stability. An attachment rests behind the rider, on the horse’s back.

The ability to use the 3-D printer saves on cost, as well as time. Millard said the 3-D horseback riding device took around 12 hours to print, rather than waiting weeks for a specially ordered part to arrive.

“I know with the tricycle we adapted, we went to garage sales and (were) buying bicycles with training wheels,” Millard said.

“So we may be spending $10-$15 for the bicycle that we buy.”

The 3-D printed additions may be an additional $50. On the other hand, a new tricycle adapted for someone with a disability could cost up to $2,000.

“So it just makes it affordable,” Millard said. “With these families, the mothers often have to quit work to stay home to take care (of the child) so the income is limited.”

It’s also cost-effective to keep producing new parts for children who are still growing.

The therapy, combined with these 3-D printed devices intended for more independence, is something needed for anyone with a disability.

“For people who are in a wheelchair, and Joseph is also nonverbal and he has some issues with visual impairment,” Grillo said, “being able to do things on your own and be free is a huge thing.”