If you have ever entered the Agnes Pratt Home on a weekday afternoon, you have likely met Mike Hearn, a popular face around the home. Mike is one of the main faces at The Treat Shoppe, a joint venture between the Agnes Pratt Recreation Department and residents. Every day Mike or another resident sets up shop, selling treats, greeting cards, coffee pods, toothbrushes and other items to residents, staff, family and friends of the home.
Mike is a long-time wheelchair user. However, a while ago he began having more and more difficulty sitting in his wheelchair. It was not only affecting his ability to socialize and move around the home independently; it was also keeping him in bed more. Others at the home were concerned by this, but Mike’s main concern was his inability to complete shifts at The Treat Shoppe.
Mike was referred to Occupational Therapy to determine if alternate seating could be identified that could help him sit more comfortably so he could continue to carry out the activities that are meaningful to him. As an occupational therapist, I worked with Mike and other team members to figure out a seating system that not only enabled him to sit upright so that he could see, eat and drink, but also one that allowed him to move independently around the home, attend community events and, of course, work his regular shifts at The Treat Shoppe.
The seating system ultimately prescribed and used by Mike worked really well – with one exception – the cup holder attached to his old wheelchair didn’t fit his new one. Mike uses a very special cup to drink his favourite drinks. It’s a bit larger than most cups and shaped differently, but it works very well for him.
Hydration is very important in long term care, so we attempted to fix the problem. What we thought would be a quick fix swiftly turned into the near impossible. Any cup holder that could attach to his chair wasn’t big enough to hold his cup. And, if it was able to hold his cup, it couldn’t be attached to the chair. Mike and I explored many solutions without success. At one point, we resigned ourselves to the fact that a suitable cup holder may not exist, and that Mike would have to live with frequently replacing his special cup which often broke from being accidentally knocked to the floor.
That’s until we found out about 3D printing. I learned how 3D printing can be applied in the medical field, and specifically how it’s being used in the medical curriculum at Memorial University. Through a collaboration between MUN’s Medical School and Faculty of Engineering, 3D printing is being used to create effective medical training simulators, support remote teaching, and explore other clinical applications. I approached Greg Walsh and Nicole Bishop with MUN Med 3D about the possibility of creating a custom cup holder for Mike – one that both fit his cup and could also be mounted to his new wheelchair in a location he could reach. They quickly agreed this was a project they could help with, and off we went!
Nicole and co-op engineering student, Sarah Mroz, often came to the home to see Mike in his regular environment doing his daily activities. They took measurements and came up with ideas, with Sarah ultimately leading the design and fabrication process.
After two cup holders were printed and didn’t quite fit right, the third time worked like a charm. A cup holder that both held his special cup and was easy for him to access was finally attached to Mike’s chair. However, it broke within 24 hours and we quickly identified our error. A week later Sarah came back with another cup holder to try – this time mounted in a different location where it was less likely to get caught in a door frame or corner. And today the cup holder is still in place, still holding Mike’s special cup, and enabling him to remain hydrated while working his shifts at The Treat Shoppe.
As workers in today’s health-care system, we take pride in prioritizing the “small” details that can have big impacts on a person’s quality of life and well-being, even if they fall outside our awareness or comfort zones. I have always associated technology in health care with information management or surgical innovations. Through this experience, I learned how it can also directly impact my front-line work and the quality of life of our patients, clients and residents.
Though MUN Med 3D has since disbanded, Mike and I are very grateful to have had access to 3D printing when we did. We welcome the chance for other community-long term care partnerships in the future!■
This story was written by Kelly Fry, a long term care occupational therapist at both the Agnes Pratt and Saint Luke’s Homes in St. John’s.