_R3A9150Nathanael De Leon shows off his new prosthetic hand

For Veterans Middle School student Nathanael De Leon, life has changed forever. The 7th grader, who was born without a right hand, struggled for years to do daily tasks at home and school. That changed when De Leon met another student by the name of Rey Vela in science class this year.

After dedicating many long hours (mostly on their spare time) and seeking guidance from their teacher Daniel Gonzalez, the boys created a prosthetic hand for De Leon. Gonzalez said they came up with the idea to build the device following discussions in class over a 3D printer that was sitting on top of a counter.

“One of the students wanted to know what the 3D printer was for,” Gonzalez said. “We had used it in the past for small projects for our robotics club, but nothing to the extent of what we did with Nathanael. When the question was asked, I saw Nathanael sitting there without his hand and that’s when a light bulb went off.”

At that point, Gonzalez briefly went online to research whether making a prosthetic hand with a 3D printer was even possible. “I wanted to know if we could really do this, and sure enough there were people who were doing it,” Gonzalez said. “So, without researching further, I asked Nathanael if he would feel comfortable pursuing this idea and right away he was very supportive. He said, ‘yeah, absolutely.’”

Gonzalez said Ortiz, who is in his robotics club, quickly stepped up. “He volunteered to research websites and different online organizations and communities that share files,” Gonzalez said. “Sure enough he found something that we believed would work, and we began printing it out.”

_R3A9165Nathanael De Leon poses with Science Teacher Daniel Gonzalez

But the trio said the printing process had its share of obstacles. “After a few weeks of printing out different pieces, putting it altogether and getting the right materials, we thought we were almost done until it was assembled.” Gonzalez said. “We realized the hand was extremely big compared to proportions of his other hand. We had to go back to the drawing board and rescale it to a smaller size which had its complications as well. Once you change one thing everything else changes.”

“There were a lot of mistakes,” Vela said. “One of the hands that we made came out great, but it was really rough inside, rough enough to cut something.”

However, after numerous attempts and issues with the equipment, the students and their teacher were able to come up with a model that worked. “I was so excited that I ran out of the room and I was like ‘is this true,’” Vela said. “I went back in and was jumping up and down because I was so happy.”

“When you see the final outcome, there’s that light that turns on and satisfaction that you get from seeing that you created something from nothing,” Gonzalez said.

De Leon said he never expected something like this to happen to him. He can do things now that he could not do before. “The first time I tried it on it felt weird, but after a lot of practice I feel that it’s part of me now,” De Leon said. “I don’t feel it’s there.”

DSC09188Rey Ortiz discusses his role in making the prosthetic hand with the news media

“He’s able to navigate through his book, turn pages,” Gonzalez said. “He came to class one day and told me he could open the refrigerator at home, which is something that most people take for granted. He’s also able to pick up small things here and there as long as they’re not too heavy.”

Vela said this experience has been amazing and brought him and De Leon closer together. “We were friends but as soon as we made the prosthetic hand, we became close and now I see him as my best friend,” Vela said. “I am so happy because he’s happy. It’s heartwarming just to see him happy.”

Gonzalez said all the commotion has boosted De Leon’s confidence. “His confidence level has dramatically increased,” he said. “He’s speaking louder, he’s communicating more with the students and he’s opened up a lot. This is just the beginning. I feel like there’s almost a new life that he’s able to live now.”

“My friends tell me that they’re happy because I can finally use my right hand, give high fives and shake hands,” De Leon said with a smile.

Gonzalez said this experience has been inspiring all the way around. “Obstacles arose and they found a solution for each one of them,” he said. “They continued to move forward until the end product and now that everything seems to be working well, they made replacement parts for the future. In case it were to fail, they will have the parts on hand to change them out. It’s truly neat what they’ve done and I’m really proud of them.”