NOV. 29, 2012 UPDATE:
Ivan Owen from Bellingham flew to South Africa over Thanksgiving to help create prosthetic fingers for a little boy that was born without any. Here's the YouTube video of the work.
When South African woodworker Richard Van As lost four fingers in an accident, Ivan Owen soon realized his mechanical skills were not just a hobby; they could improve thousands of lives.
The result: A partnership the inventive pair will use to create an open-source Internet site with directions for creating relatively inexpensive prosthetic fingers.
Owen, 27, a lifelong Whatcom County resident, is a businessman by day and a mechanical special effects artist in his spare time. He and his wife, Jen, live in Bellingham with their three children.
Question: Ivan, why did you produce your YouTube demonstration of playing the piano with a prosthetic finger?
Answer: I want people to see what Richard and I are doing to create affordable, practical prosthetic fingers.
Q: How did you meet Richard?
A: After he lost four fingers last year, he realized it would cost him $20,000 for two prosthetic fingers for the fingers he lost at the first knuckle (the other two fingers were entirely lost). So he sought solutions on the Internet, and he came across a large artificial hand I had created (not for use). Richard sent me a picture of his hand and asked if I could help.
Q: What did he see in your work?
A: He felt that together, perhaps we could create artificial fingers for much less money. Soon we both realized this was more than about us, but rather a way to help people worldwide.
Q: How much progress have you made?
A: Just working together on the Internet we have created both longer and shorter prosthetic fingers that work well, though we have a ways to go to create special hinges and to fine-tune the fingers. We're about 75 percent there.
But to really finish our project we need to spend some time working together. Richard's close friend, Mark Cowley, generously donated his frequent flyer miles and I am now booked for a flight to South Africa on Nov. 17, returning on Nov. 23. We are still fundraising for the cost of various tools and materials that we'll need.
Q: Why are you publishing everything open source on the Internet?
A: We aren't interested in trying to make money off people's miseries. We want everyone in the world who needs prosthetic fingers to have a way to see them created by others for very little money. Our real dream is a nonprofit fueled by donations and devoted to open-source information about prosthetics. What I'm really interested in doing is perfecting artificial fingers.
Q: Why fingers?
A: I've been a musician for 18 years, and I especially know how important the use of fingers can be. I've been inspired by people like my former music teacher Robert Lundquist and his wife, Pat, who showed me how unselfish and caring people can be in helping others.
Q: Have you always had such an exceptional mechanical aptitude?
A: When I attended Sehome High School I was mostly interested in music, but I also developed a fascination for creating replicas of medieval armor. I belonged to the Society for Creative Anachronism for a while.
Later, on assignment, I created a spider mask with movable mandibles. That, in turn, led me to build an artificial hand a foot-and-a-half long. While I attended Whatcom Community College I continued working with mechanical special effects art, and now I do creative work for small filmmakers.
Q: Richard seems to have quite a sense of humor.
A: He has an incredible mind and he's very mechanically oriented. The website comingupshorthanded.com shows what a great sense of humor he has. I really can't take much of the credit for all this, because Richard has been the catalyst.
WATCH THE VIDEO
LEARN MORE, HELP OUT
The fundraising page to help Richard Van As and Ivan Owen is fundly.com/JLSFOAEU.
The blog where the open-source design is located is chaincrafts.blogspot.com.
Michelle Nolan is a Bellingham freelance writer.