3D printing transforming how the VA treats wounded vets

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Bill Bjournez Junior was passionate about playing his trumpet.

The musical notes lift him up when he’s feeling down, and as a longtime trumpet player in the air force band, his instrument was his passport to the world.

“To me, this is my ticket, this is the way I got to go to all 50 states in the country, play in 26 different countries. I have no idea how many heads of state I have played for,” says Bill Bjournez Junior.

But a brain tumor damaged the veteran’s motor skills in his hand.

Holding up his hand, the air force veteran says, “I couldn’t get these fingers to open all the way.”

When Bjournez tried to play, one of his fingers would always slip off the valves. That was until the Assistive Technology team at McGuire VA Medical Center stepped in with a 3D printer.

“We model it up to his specifications,” says Brian Burkhardt, a Clinical Rehabilitation Engineer at McGuire as he shows us a design on his computer screen to help Bjournez with his trumpet playing.

Working with Bill, the team of engineers and therapists designed and printed a plastic replacement valve with a guard that prevents bill’s finger from slipping off.

“This one has a screw going through the center. I can feel that screw top and it lets me know the very center of my finger is in there,” explains Bjournez showing us the plastic valve.

Once it was designed on the computer, it took just 10 minutes to produce in the 3D printer. McGuire is the only VA hospital in the country using 3D printing in a clinical setting.

McGuire is the only VA hospital in the country using 3D printing in a clinical setting.

Burkhardt says, “We have a patient that has a goal, and there isn’t a product that will help them meet that goal, then we make it.”

The Assistive Technology problem solves struggles that injured or paralyzed veterans face with everyday needs.

For instance, a device for a man who had a tremor that made it difficult to use his computer touchscreen.

Melissa Oliver, Assistive Technology Program Coordinator, and occupational therapist at McGuire holds up the device.

“This is a keyguard, so when you’re typing, it’s going to bring up the keys and you are going to accurately hit the right key,” she explained. “Our rehab engineer painstakingly measured this out, printed it and we had it in less than 24 hours for the veteran,” she explains.

In another instance, they designed and created a specially angled fork to help a paralyzed vet feed himself. In another instance, they designed a salt shaker-like product, created to help a vet who had a hard time getting his glucose strips out of the canister.

“Just like a salt shaker, one or two strips would come out at a time,” explains Burkhardt.

“This one veteran lost his arm so he can’t get his whole shirt up, so he was embarrassed. He was becoming socially isolated, and he wasn’t going to his medical appointments,” says Oliver.

From the lab in Richmond, the team designed veteran who lives in Nebraska a plastic shoulder.

“This is his 3D printed shoulder and we added loops here so he can strap it on. Now he is going to his appointments and I believe now he has a part-time job,” says Oliver.

“We see them using it, we see how it affects their life how it changes their life sometimes, and its really rewarding. It makes what we do really worth it,” says Burkhardt.

“I was overwhelmed,” says Bjournez in between playing a few notes on his horn.

For him, the McGuire team and their 3D printer has given him his passion back.

“I am closer to being whole again,” says Bjournez.

McGuire has used the 3D printer to help 700 patients so far this year. They assist active duty service members as well as veterans all across the country. Patients are recommended to them by their doctors.

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