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Ukraine - Canadian Charity Lends a Hand

At first glance, it is a peaceful and unremarkable scene - a man out for a stroll with his dog.  


Victoria Hand recipient, Andryi, walking a dog using his new prosthesis

This man is remarkable, though. His name is Andryi - a 40-year-old Ukrainian soldier. 

Andryi had his right arm blown off in a mine explosion while defending his homeland.  With his remaining arm, this heroic man dragged his blinded comrade out of the trench to safety. He considers himself lucky - to have kept his promise to his wife to come home alive.


Andryi is now able to guide his dog with his completely new and extraordinary right arm and hand. It is a highly functional, lightweight prosthetic created using cutting-edge 3D printing, courtesy of the Canadian Charity Victoria Hand Project (VHP).


This exceptional charity, a spin-off from the University of Victoria’s Biomedical Engineering Program, can fit and create affordable, high-quality upper limb prosthetics for amputees in need all around the globe. 


COMPASSION AND ENGINEERING FOR THE GREATER GOOD


VHP’s motto "Prosthetics Within Reach" entirely fits this charity. Compassion is abundant, and the engineers who birthed VHP are humanitarians to the end. 


CONCEPTION


Nick Dechev is an associate professor at the University of Victoria. He is also the founder and Chief Technical Officer of VHP. 


In 2001, during his Master's degree at the University of Toronto, Dechev noted that the current prosthetic hands used were cumbersome, expensive, and limited in functionality. They could not fully grasp objects, making for a frustrating experience.


Dechev went to work and created a unique prosthetic hand with an adaptive grasp, able to pick up different-sized objects.  The problem, however, was that his creation was made of steel and needed traditional manufacturing techniques, rendering it too expensive for its intended recipients. Dechev tabled his project. 


Cut to 2012.  Dechev had established himself as a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Victoria. Biomedical engineering students were researching 3D printing and its possibilities in the biomedical field.


An engineering student approached him with the proposal of replicating Dechev’s hand prototype using 3D printing, possibly creating new, lighter, and less expensive prosthetic hands. The proposition was accepted, and happily, Dechev’s prototype was re-born. 


BIRTH


In 2014, VHP received a $100,000 grant from Grand Challenges Canada - and the project took its first steps.


One of the first versions of the 3D printed Victoria Hand (2016)

The team brought their re-designed upper limb and hand prosthetics to Guatemala in 2015 for initial trials on volunteer recipients.  After the successful trial ended, the volunteer recipients asked to keep the prosthetics they had been given. This is not entirely surprising - many participants had no other prosthetic device. 


Before receiving the prosthetics, many trial participants could not perform simple tasks such as eating, bathing, and household chores without help. Many people with amputations also suffer from depression, social isolation, anxiety, and cultural stigmatization. 


During the trial period, the prosthetics gave many of them a renewed sense of confidence, independence, and hope where there was none before. 


Victoria Hand Project team fitting Isabel with Victoria Hand prosthesis in Guatemala (2015)

The team recognized the substantial need for upper limb prosthetics for amputees worldwide - and in July 2015, Victoria Hand Project was born.


GROWTH


Upon return to Canada, the team turned its attention to receiving further funding - to support their vision, expand their reach, and refine and improve their prototype. 


Fortunately, VHP received additional funding from Grand Challenges Canada in 2016, Google.org in 2017, and a $ 1 million grant from the TD Ready Challenge in 2019.


This cash infusion allowed VHP to continue its growth, and by 2022, it had established itself in Cambodia, Nepal, Haiti, Canada, Egypt, Uganda, the USA, and Kenya. With this financial support, the Victoria Hand evolved, becoming lighter, more functional, affordable, and aesthetically pleasing.

 

Comparison of Victoria Hand versus Traditional Prosthesis

By 2022, VHP had successfully designed and created prosthetics for over 200 recipients worldwide. 


The process VHP uses to establish itself in other countries is simple but highly effective. Chief Operating Officer, Kelly Knights, explains:  “Our partners (clinics) provide the clinical expertise, and VHP provides the prosthesis. Together, a complete service is offered that supports both the amputee and their community.”


UKRAINE


On February 24, 2022, Russia’s President Putin declared a “special military operation”. Its goal being the demilitarization and de-Nazification of Ukraine. A full-scale Russian military invasion of Ukraine began that same day.


Ukraine’s president, Zelensky, immediately declared martial law in effect. Men aged 18-60 could no longer leave the country. Thousands of volunteer soldiers and conscripted men headed to the frontline to defend their homeland from the invaders. 


Soldiers and civilians alike soon began losing their limbs and their lives from Russia's relentless bombing of Ukraine cities and exploding landmines.


Like many of us, the staff of VHP watched in horror as the dramatic war unfolded with no end in sight. VHP wanted to help. 


"VHP does not normally operate in areas of active conflict. However, this was different. The team clearly saw that VHP could help and that we had a solution for helping many of the soldiers and civilians in need of upper limb and hand prosthetics." - Michael Peirone, CEO of Victoria Hand Project


VHP extended a hand to Ukraine, dubbing the project Hands for Ukraine. 


HANDS FOR UKRAINE


It took almost a full year of fundraising and planning before the team made its initial trip to Ukraine in January 2023. According to Knights, Choose Love helped to get the Hands for Ukraine pilot project off the ground with its generous grant of $100,000.


Hands for Ukraine involved closely collaborating with two established prosthetic clinics. One is in Lviv (Arol Plus Prosthetic - Orthopedic Enterprise), and the second is in Vinnystia (Vinnystia State Prosthetic - Orthopedic Enterprise). VHP supplied the resources needed, including 3D scanners and printers, computers, tool kits, and high-tech skills training. 


This initial trial identified a pressing need for upper arm prosthetics. The Department of Health in Kyiv estimates that there were 15000 amputees in the first half of 2023 alone. 


The team made a second trip in July 2023 to provide additional training and supplies. Clinical staff were able to provide prosthetic care to over 50 people within three months. Although a significant achievement, as of October 31, 2023, there are now over 65 people on Lviv’s waiting list for prosthetics. 


Ukraine is currently the most heavily mined country in the world, and yet the war continues, with no indications of a ceasefire or of peace. The grim reality is that the demand for prosthetic care will only grow. 


STEP UP


Victoria Hand Project is stepping up to help meet this growing and urgent need.


According to Peirone, the current fundraising goal of $60,000 would help to finance 100 additional prosthetics and support the establishment of a third clinical partner in Kyiv.


EMPOWERMENT


What strikes me as remarkable about this charity is its empowering quality of support - to the people in need of prosthetics and their community. 


It does not simply hand off the prosthetics and wish them well. VHP provides the needed equipment and training so the clinic staff can independently create and fit 3D printed prosthetics.


This fits the bill for the fiercely proud and determined soldiers and citizens of Ukraine. 


For amputees, receiving a prosthetic can change their world. It promotes a sense of normalcy in a world that is anything but. Being able to eat and bathe independently gives back some confidence and hope. Being able to walk their dog again - is priceless. 


"This project is hope. Hope for all those defenders who lost limbs on the battlefield. It is important to know that we are not left to fend for ourselves and that someone does help us. That we are not alone." - Andryi, 2023


Ukraine 2023. Left to right: Nick Dechev (Founder & CTO), Andryi (recipient,) Kelly Knights (COO), and Michael Peirone (CEO)

Victoria Hand Project – worth giving a hand to.


Written by guest writer: Linda-Marie McDonald RN, BN. Health Writer.
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