Sierra Leone Civil War Survivor Develops Perfect Fit Prostheses

A young doctorate student from MIT has devised a technology for customizing prosthetics which could benefit amputees all over the world. Prosthetic limbs which are not fitted precisely can be a major source of discomfort for amputees, but David Sengeh, 26, hopes that by loading MRI scans of a patient’s limbs onto a 3D computer, it will be possible to create a perfect fit for every prosthetic socket.

The innovative work that David has done with the university’s Biomechatronics Group is noteworthy in its own right, but it is not the end of this remarkable story. Even by MIT’s lofty standards, David Sengeh is no ordinary student, and the inspiration for his work is rooted in a dark and terrible past.

In David’s home country of Sierra Leone, a bloody and brutal civil war from 1991 to 2002 left 50,000 dead and almost one million others displaced, from a population of just six million. These are tragic numbers, but they only hint at the atrocities which were committed in the small West African nation during a decade of diamond-fuelled conflict.

Rape and torture became commonplace in Sierra Leone throughout the 1990s, and while the world turned its gaze elsewhere, countless thousands of uninvolved citizens were callously mutilated. Roaming gangs of soldiers, many of whom were still children, deliberately hacked off their victims’ hands and feet while family members watched. Sierra Leone was maimed physically and emotionally, and it has not yet recovered.

A decade on from those devastating events and Sierra Leone remains among the world’s most impoverished nations. In spite of the country’s great natural resources – including titanium, bauxite, gold, diamonds, and the third largest natural harbor in the world –many workers toil for less than $1 a day, and almost three quarters of the population live in poverty. It is also likely that no country in the world has such a need for affordable and comfortable prostheses.

This is David Sengeh’s legacy, and also his inspiration. David and his immediate family escaped most of the brutality, though two uncles were murdered and the girl who lived next door was killed by a stray bullet. He saw the horrors and the aftermath of war, and realised that many of his country’s amputees chose to live without prosthetic replacements – even free ones – because of long-term discomfort.

Now, David is turning that awful history into a force for good, with his technology set to revolutionize the prosthetics industry.  “Seeing people who had lost their limbs and whose lives were just kind of cut short was very, very traumatizing,” he says. “But it also opened this desire to engineer a solution.”

David Sengeh believes his new process will enable manufacturers to create a prosthesis that is not only the right fit, but also one which takes into account varying degrees of stiffness across the affected area. By feeding data from MRI scans of a patient’s residual limb into a 3D modelling computer, it will be possible to craft a prosthetic socket with multiple layers and materials, customized to suit each individual patient’s needs.

David’s remarkable intellect was recognized early on, and in 2004 he was awarded a scholarship to study in Norway. From there, he moved to Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, before joining MIT’s Media Lab and the Biomechatronics Group, a research team which investigates ways that technology can be used to enhance human physical capability. But his interest in helping others goes far beyond coming up with new creations: he wants to give others the chance to do the same.

While still at Harvard, he set up Global Minimum, a non-profit organization which empowers Africans to create their own solutions to problems they alone truly understand. Since 2006, ‘GMin’, has distributed over 15,000 specially treated bed nets which will help fight the spread of malaria. In March 2012, David launched the Innovate Salone program to further inspire creativity and problem solving in Sierra Leone. With scholarships and mentoring as additional incentives, Innovate Salone calls on Africa’s young people “to think about creative ways in which they can solve some of the most challenging issues within their communities.”

Innovate Salone has already yielded incredible results, such as teenager Kelvin Doe’s home-made radio station. Doe, a 16-year-old from Freetown, created batteries and a generator from scrap materials found near his home, and in 2012 the self-taught engineer became the youngest ever person to be a part of MIT’s Visiting Practitioner Program.

David Sengeh has already introduced similar initiatives in Kenya and South Africa, and is confident that these mentoring schemes will locate more outstanding young innovators who can help solve Africa’s problems. “We do have the talent and young people within Sierra Leone, within Africa as a whole, to invent the future,” he says. “We do not need primary aid, we do not need money, we do not need solutions and products to come from the West to be given to people and train them how to use it.”

As is the case with David Sengeh’s concept of a better prosthesis, it’s all about getting the right fit: finding African people to solve African problems. “The creative thinking, the ability to dare to dream and take the risk to develop a prototype,” he says.” Those are what’s needed to develop products that will change the world. That is what changes a country.”