A Helping Hand

A fireworks accident that destroyed part of his dominant hand left sheriff’s office investigator Tom Dowling ‘10 wondering what he’d be able to do. The answer, with the help of AU’s assistive technology program, turned out to be: “a lot.”

By Derek Herscovici ’13

JULY 4, 2015

Tom Dowling ’10 was enjoying a patch of calm weather with friends and family on an otherwise stormy holiday.

The fireworks came out when the rain stopped. Dowling and his friends were launching mortar shells angled across Lake Martin, their tubes taped to a folding table buried in sand. The cheap table had already taken a beating from the repeated blasts. Night was falling and the weather looked increasingly treacherous. The fun would be ending soon.

But the party lingered on. Some revelers were holding Roman candles and larger tubes to launch cherry bombs; it wasn’t long before they reached for the big mortar tubes. They started blasting fist-sized shells from the palms of their hands.

Some encouraged Dowling to try shooting one of the big ones.

“You gotta do it!”

“Nah, that’s dangerous,” Dowling said.

As the impending storm approached and the folding table perished under the strain, he weighed the considerations.  

“I was like, ‘Well… we’re gonna have to move them anyway.’ So I took one…”

Dowling falls silent, the memories as real now as they were last July 4. He has not forgotten anything. 

aw-man

“I was holding it. I wasn’t ready for it to be lit, but, y’know… I was probably going to hold it anyway. When it went off I heard a ‘pfff,’ but I didn’t register that it was bypassing the propellant, and then it detonated. It was one of those, ‘Aw man, that was a lot louder than it should have been… Why does my leg hurt… Oh s**t, my hand’s gone.’ ”

DECEMBER 2010

2010 was not a good year to enter the job market. Graduating from Auburn with a bachelor’s in criminology, Dowling followed the traditional “shotgun approach” to job applications. “I could feel the clock ticking on those student loans. I just needed a job and didn’t care where or what I was doing.”

Around this time the Tallapoosa County Sheriff’s Office put out an offer for corrections officers to work the county jail for $8.73 an hour. Dowling was sold.

Hired in January 2011 as a CO (“a glorified babysitter”), he trained into excellent fitness and put in a letter to the sheriff,
asking to be considered for the position of deputy.

Coincidentally, the sheriff’s office was already hiring when Dowling applied; he was soon called in for testing.

“I tested with eight other guys and outran them all, out-pushed them all, hands-down beat them in the physical,” he recalls. “Then we had the interview and they selected me.” He was promoted to deputy in April 2011 and left for the Academy a month later.

Dowling separated himself from his class once training began. At graduation 14 weeks later, he was half a point shy from top score.

After weeks of field training Dowling joined the Tallapoosa County Sheriff’s Office, going on patrol right away. By April 1, 2012, he’d been promoted to investigator. “That was just a blast,” he said. “That’s where the real work is being a cop. I had about
15 cases a month, about 140 a year that I’d work on nonstop.

“I was on call the week I blew my hand off.”

JULY 4, 2015

“I’ve got 10 seconds before this hurts,” Dowling thought as he stared at the remains of his right hand, sheared in half—the blast had taken his thumb, index and middle finger. “I told my brother to get me a bottle of water, and told my friend to put a tourniquet on my wrist. Keep pressure here; call 911; get me a chair so I can sit down…”

Despite the pain and shock Dowling coordinated his own rescue effort, a credit to his emergency training. He told those who weren’t immediately tending to him to find his fingers, but soon realized they had been vaporized in the blast.

“There was a 10-foot circle on the beach that looked like someone had put a pound of hamburger in a potato gun and shot it into the ground. The sand was pink. There was nothing left. The bones, the muscle, everything had just been shot out and gone.”

When the ambulance arrived 30 minutes later Dowling walked himself inside, still under his own power, before being rushed first to Lake Martin Community Hospital, then to UAB Hospital in Birmingham.

By his side the entire time was Dowling’s wife, Kate, who despite being nine months pregnant, slept in the hospital every night he was there. Only weeks after being discharged from UAB the Dowlings were back in the hospital, this time for the birth of their daughter, Lana.

dowling-family

“I was out of work for about a month, maybe a month and a half. I had plenty of sick time stored up because I never used it. I had vacation time stored up, I had comp time stored up that I didn’t even have to touch because I never ran out of sick time.”

Dowling’s buddies in the sheriff’s office donated sick time to cover his remaining leave. The office gave him plenty of support when he returned in August, but he wasn’t ready to go back to full capacity. He would need new combat training to use his residual hand in the field and would need to learn how to shoot with his left hand—training limited by the shorthanded staff.

In the meantime, Dowling could handle office work like sex-offender registration, crime scene investigation and evidence handling.

“They would have found a way to keep me there, but I said no. I’d been doing it for four years. You need a guy who’s able
to do the whole job and I liked the whole job. If I could only do half the job, it wouldn’t be the same.”

Dowling left the Tallapoosa County Sheriff’s Office in October 2015 and returned to Auburn to help his dad start up a technology sales business, adjusting to civilian life, attending church and helping raise Lana (“have you ever tried to change a diaper one-handed?”) and his 3-year-old son, Liam.

Around the same time, Dowling’s insurance provider denied his claim to receive financial support for a prosthetic hand, citing the residual limb as “enough.”

“When you lose half your hand, even if it’s the most functional part of your hand, in the minds of the insurance companies
you still have a hand and therefore you don’t need a prosthetic. At least not for their money.”

A support fund was set up to raise money to help, drawing donations from friends, family, even a few people Dowling had locked up. Though they raised nearly $5,000, it wasn’t enough. Upper-limb prosthetics can cost up to $30,000 after fitting, construction and physical therapy.

When Dowling learned about 3D printed prosthetic limbs and tools online, he used the donated money to buy an UltiMaker II 3D Printer. Though the price was right, he quickly understood there was a reason it took a college degree to use the design software. 

In the meantime, he returned to Covenant Presbyterian Church, which he’d frequented while a student at Auburn, and took a job as an administrative pastor. It was at church that Dowling met industrial design professor Shea Tillman.

Back in 2008, Tillman and AU College of Education Ph.D. student Chad Duncan ’08 had developed a program at Auburn that combined rehabilitation and prosthetic development with industrial design and 3D printing. Over the past six years, Scott Renner with Auburn’s Center for Disability Research and Service, and Jerrod Windham, a professor in industrial design, built a partnership that connects students in industrial design and rehabilitation with people facing challenges from disabilities. A recent focus has been helping wounded veterans, more than 1,600 of whom have lost full or partial limbs due to improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

More than $9,000 was raised by the Auburn community on Dec. 1 during last year’s Tiger Giving Day to support the 3D Printing Prosthetics for Wounded Veterans program.   

3D printing is relatively cheap and takes only a few hours to be fully functional, but the real benefit is being able to share design plans online. By uploading the design files to websites like Thingiverse, people like Dowling can print prosthetics from their own home. “It’s not the traditional way you manufacture or create products, but, as a land-grant institution, this is something that we want to do,” says Windham.

The industrial design department recently acquired four printers through the Tiger Giving Day donations, each different models but all capable of the same work.

Dowling attended several lectures and introductions to 3D printing technology in the beginning of Windham’s spring 2016 class before being introduced to his design team: Becca Harris ’17, Brittany Moore ’16 and Daniel Newton ’17.

polaroid

The dearth of partial-hand prosthetics was challenging at first. Because Dowling was interested in utility-based prosthetics he could use like tools, each member of the group chose a specific task to accomplish and designed his or her own prototype.

“It sounds cheesy, but this was a life-changing experience,” said Harris, an industrial design major from Brevard, N.C. “I wanted to do something extremely small-scale, kind of a one-on-one relationship with a client, not focus on marketing or how to sell it, just the product itself and the need to be met.”

Harris designed a prosthetic for small-range motions like pinching and picking up smaller items by creating a plastic shell that fits over Dowling’s residual hand, with a rotating thumb joint that can be moved and locked in place. Seeing the look on Dowling’s face when he realized he would have a thumb was her biggest inspiration during the project.

“The most amazing thing about that studio was that we want to design for people, but we don’t ever get to interact with those people,” said Newton, an industrial design major from Fayette. “We don’t get to say, ‘Hey, what about this product do you not like? What can be better?’ Even if our products are life-changing, we don’t get to see that change personally, so it was great to see the direct results of what we do.” 

Newton said his design was a partial-hand variation of designer Steve Wood’s Flexy-Hand 2, a prosthetic that uses flexion in the wrist to trigger wires that pull artificial fingers closed and open.

An all-around hand designed for as much range and utility as possible, Newton’s creation made Dowling’s remaining ring finger the triggering mechanism for complete and partial closure so he can grip different surfaces and shapes.

Dowling stayed excited through the process, envisioning specific applications for each prosthetic and gaining much-needed insight into the design process.

“You don’t know how many times you pinch things, especially when you’re working on electronics,” Dowling said. “Just being able to hold it and use the other hand would be fantastic. I’ve got a 3-year-old son that loves to play catch and I can sort of do it with this, but I’ll let you guess what my accuracy is when I throw it. That’s what really appealed to me, that finger control, catching and releasing.”

A major feature that Moore said she wanted her design to address was giving Dowling back the shape and basic functionality of a hand.

“One of the things that really stood out to us the first day was shaking hands,” said Moore, an environmental science major from Las Vegas. “That’s something you have to do every single day, especially working at a church. That’s your first interaction with somebody. He thought it invoked pity and he didn’t want that. He wanted to be proud of what he had and not make people uncomfortable.”

Using handheld scanners and plaster casts of both hands, Moore was able to print a solid-body prosthetic with a Velcro strap that fits exactly on Dowling’s residual hand. The design also includes a notch between the thumb and index finger to hold a writing utensil and flexible rubber material molded like fingertips inside the hand to grip things better. Thick padding protects Dowling’s recovering skin from the rough material, something for which he is grateful.

“My main goal was to give him something final,” Moore said. “We didn’t have much time and we had so many ideas, I just really wanted to make sure I got him a final piece that he could use later.”

Even though Moore’s design was the only one to be completed by semester’s end, Harris and Newton each continue to work on their designs with the intention of delivering a finished product. For Dowling, though, just having something to wear like Moore’s solid-body design is life-changing.

“It’s annoying to look down at your shadow and see your hand on one side and what looks like a claw on the other,” Dowling says. “Even if you can mentally separate it, it’s still not a good feeling. When you put [this] on, you forget it’s there because it’s insanely comfortable. You look down and it looks normal and you go about your day. It’s fantastic.”

Before she graduated, Moore designed Dowling a set of guitar picks that fit between his ring and little finger so he can play the guitar again, one of the hobbies he had missed.

JULY 2016

A year after the accident, Dowling has learned to accept what he can’t change and make the most of every day. He’s still uncomfortable telling the story.

“I shouldn’t have been holding it,” he says of the launcher. “I knew better. The first time someone picked one up I should’ve told them not to. I got cocky with it, so that was stupid. However, looking back, had I not been holding it, it would’ve been next to my face on the table. It also would have been next to the pile of kids watching it go off. It could have been so much worse, so that is the silver lining in it.”

Things have resumed a sense of normalcy for Dowling and his family, who have adapted to the changes right alongside him, even learning to laugh about it along the way. The time to train his body for long-term prosthetic use has passed, but Dowling doesn’t mind; he never wanted to be dependent on one anyway. Thanks to the friends he made and the help he received through the assistive technology program, he has the tools to fight another day.

But that’s just Auburn.

“Brittany, Becca and Daniel treated me with more care and attention than some of the people I paid to treat me, and they did it for free,” Dowling said. “I never felt like I was a project. I knew the whole time they cared about what was being done and how it was being done and what they could do for me. It never felt like they were in it for a grade and I don’t think you get that anywhere but Auburn.”

 

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