College students build a prosthetic arm for a young violinist

The pressure was on for Abdul Gouda and his classmates at George Mason University. Not only did their graduation depend on the completion of their project, but the hopes of a 10-year-old girl were pinned on its success.

Fifth-grader Isabella Nicola Cabrera wanted to play the violin, but she was born with no left hand and a severely abbreviated forearm. Her music teacher at Island Creek Elementary in Fairfax County, Virginia, had built her a prosthetic allowing her to move the bow with her left arm and finger the strings with her right — the opposite of how violin is usually taught. But the prosthetic was heavy, and he thought there might be a better option. He reached out to his alma mater, nearby George Mason University, or “Mason” as the locals call it.

As it happened, Gouda and his four teammates at Mason’s bioengineering department were looking for a senior project.

Still, Gouda admits some hesitation at the outset.

“It’s sort of a lot of pressure,” he said. “You’ve got this young girl who’s counting on you, and you’re expected to deliver.”

The team — Gouda, Mona Elkholy, Ella Novoselsky, Racha Salha and Yasser Alhindi — developed multiple prototypes throughout the year. Isabella communicated easily with the group and provided feedback, especially about the weight. The team enlisted a music professor at Mason, Elizabeth Adams, to help.

Pink prosthetic hand holding violin bow (© AP Images)
The prosthetic hand holds a bow as it sits on a table in Mason’s engineering school, awaiting Isabella. (© AP Images)

A musician at heart

Isabella had her heart set on playing music when the school began offering strings lessons in fourth grade.

“I’ve never told her no,” said her mother, Andrea Cabrera. “I told her we would try. There was no guarantee the school would be able to do an adaptation. Through these little miracles, it kept going forward.”

Isabella never had any doubt. “I felt right away that I’d be able to play,” she said. “I’ve always had perseverance.”

On April 20, Isabella received her final prosthetic from the college students. Built from a 3-D printer, it is hot pink (at her request) with “Isabella’s attachment” emblazoned on the forearm. She played some scales as she adjusted the fit, and even a few bars of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”

“Oh my gosh, that’s so much better,” Isabella said as she tried out the new, lighter-weight prosthetic.

And the team had a surprise for her: a plug-in attachment designed to let her grip a handlebar and ride a bicycle. “I feel very blessed that I have this amazing group of people,” Isabella said.

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