Engineering students offer life-changing gifts to young Brooke Malone
Posted with permission from Heather Mullinix, Herald-Citizen
Brooke Malone loves playing with her American Girl dolls, watching Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and playing games with her little brother, Austyn.
But this eight-year-old girl also lives with spinal muscular atrophy, which is the decline of the motor neuron network that results in a progressive loss of muscle control and movement.
"It makes everyday things that are easy for you and me harder for her," said mother Susan Dallas. "She tires easily and it affects her bones, as well."
Brooke is unable to walk or sit independently. She is also prone to respiratory illnesses, which is why Brooke is home schooled. While her body continues to weaken, however, her mind is unaffected.
Moving around the family's home is difficult because there isn't a lot of space for her wheelchair to maneuver about. And as Brooke grows older, it becomes more and more difficult for her family to physically lift her to help from the uncomfortable wheelchair to her bed or the living room couch.
Susan has wanted to teach Brooke how to sew, an activity she enjoys. But, with little use of her legs, standard machines aren't usable because they require a foot peddle to operate. Other kinds that use a push button also don't work because Brooke can't sustain the pressure needed to make the needle and thread move through the fabric.
"I wanted to teach her how to sew, but if you don't have use of your feet, how are you going to do it?" Susan said.
A group of mechanical engineering student from Tennessee Tech University have worked the past several months to help remove these barriers and help Brooke gain greater mobility and independence.
The students were enrolled in mechanical engineering professor Stephen Canfield's Dynamics of Machinery class, which chooses a project that can help a person who lives with disability lead a fuller life. Brooke's therapist Kimberly Hoover at Center of Development recommended Brooke to Canfield's class for the project.
"They work with therapists and families to find projects where the equipment either isn't available or it's just too expensive for a family, or it's just too unique," said Karen Lykins, TTU news bureau director.
The class broke into two groups, one which modified a sewing machine so that Brooke can begin learning to sew and the other to design a chair that is comfortable and can be easily moved from room to room in the home.
The sewing machine group included Austin Parkison, Jacob Phillips, Sam Watson and Patrick Vogle.
The machine uses a sensor to operate. It's a standard machine Susan found in an area store, similar to the kind she uses herself. The students bought the machine and went to work modifying it to meet Brooke's needs. They installed the machine in a cabinet that can be folded up when the machine isn't in use.
"We got some help from Jason Taylor (a senior electrical engineering student at TTU). He helped up wire up a sensor to go under her finger," Parkison said.
The machine is built to grow with Brooke, with adjustable controls for the top speed.
Parkison said the sensor used in the project came from a robotics company. It works to vary resistance based on the amount of pressure placed on it.
"The harder she presses down, the faster it will go," Parkison said.
But it won't take too much pressure to operate. As little as 1 pound of pressure will make the machine work. The students kept safety in mind, as well, installing a pressure switch that engages the machine. If Brooke were to pick her arms up, the machine would stop.
Susan said once she has taught Brooke the basics of sewing, they have patterns and fabric ready to go to create clothes for her American Girl dolls Mia and Julie.
The mobility chair was constructed by Trail White, Carl Quinn, Mike Brockman and Jake Keel.
Staring with a standard office chair, the students used steel to make the base and frame and added a reclining mechanism and an adjustable headrest. They salvaged materials from wrecked cars, including foam that was formed to Brooke's size for the cushions.
"We measured it to fit Brooke," said Brockman.
Brockman thanked Apple Independence Mobility for donating the adjustable leg rests, B&K Embroidery and Ed's Upholstery for donating upholstery and embroidery services. They also thanked Cookeville Bicycle for donating handlebars, as well.
"This is something so she can get through the house conveniently and in style," Brockman said.
It will allow Brooke or her mom to adjust the height of the chair for different activities and, with wheels, handle bars and a seatbelt, let Brooke move about the home much more easily.
"I'll be able to go into the living room!" exclaimed Brooke, who was also please to see they had upholstered it in her favorite color, embroidered her name on the headrest and added handle bars with bees, for a more personal touch.
Susan said, "To be able to wheel her from her room to the bathroom or the living room or kitchen is going to be awesome."
The chair is also designed to grow with Brooke, making it a useful tool for years to come.
All in all, the students estimated 70 to 80 hours of work had been put into both projects over the course of the semester.