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WKRN – ‘I had hope to continue’: Tennessee Tech students create prosthetics for 12-year-old drummer

June 12, 2024

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (WKRN) — Aubrey Sauvie, 12, never let anything stop her from following her dreams.

She has danced competitively, has a black belt in Taekwondo, and played drums in her middle school band. She does it all without hands.

“It’s just one part of me,” Aubrey Sauvie said. “It doesn’t make me, me.”

“She is very kind and very empathetic,” Aubrey’s mother, Jennifer Sauvie, explained. “And creative.”

Like any 12-year-old, she said that she loves makeup, art, dance, and music; the only difference is that she does it all without hands. Aubrey was born as a triple congenital amputee, meaning that she does not have limbs below both her elbows and a foot is missing toes. While her peers might have been completing tasks faster, Aubrey wasn’t going to let anything stand in the way of doing the same task.

“It definitely was a challenge to learn, but as time went on, it became easier and easier until it wasn’t difficult at all,” Aubrey described.

“She used a spoon, kept soup on the spoon, and flipped it around,” Jennifer explained. “I thought, ‘Well, if she can do that, she can do anything.'”

From a young age, that is precisely what Aubrey did — just about everything and anything. She learned to cook, dance competitively, do Taekwondo, apply makeup, and now plays drums in her middle school band.

But, like many kids, she experienced a different level of bullying over social media.

“A lot of the kids that did it didn’t even know my name or anything,” Aubrey explained. “So they were just going off, ‘Oh, she doesn’t have hands.'”

“We kind of took a break from that [social media] because my grades started falling behind and stuff because I was just really overwhelmed,” Aubrey said. “So we took a break from social media, and I got them back up.”

Aubrey said family and friends’ support got her past the cruel comments and posts.

“You’ve just got to learn to tune it out because people are going to say stuff no matter what,” Aubrey said. “Just remember it is probably something that is going on with them. So they want to take out their anger and agitation on you.”

From overcoming bullying to playing her drum by holding the drumstick in the crease of her elbow, Aubrey wouldn’t let anything stop her from pursuing her dreams. The only thing holding her back was that she couldn’t find the position or the firm sound she wanted.

“It was kind of difficult because the sticks would start slipping,” Aubrey said.

Aubrey’s middle school band teacher recommended her as a candidate for the Tennessee Tech University program, Tech Engineering for Kids. That’s when ten Tennessee Tech students in the program stepped in and began planning to provide Aubrey with 3D prosthetics made specially for drums.

“So she plays the drums; does she also play the mallets?” Tennessee Tech mechanical engineering student Zakary Henson said as he recalled his thought process. “Does she play a xylophone? Something like that. So like is it going to have to have different handles? How is it going to be secured to the hand? All of these are questions we are thinking through.”

After three to four weeks of planning, the 10 students decided to create the prosthetic using a 3D printer.

“They said ‘No, no, we are going to make the final product 3D printed,'” Tennessee Tech Professor of Mechanical Engineering Stephen Canfield said. “And that’s when I sort of said those infamous words. I said, ‘That is a one in a million chance that will work.’ But I said, ‘Hey, give it a try.'”

The students spent an entire semester working with Aubrey to get measurements and preferences before returning to the lab for research and development.

“I was with family relations,” Micah Page, a mechanical engineering Major at Tennessee Tech, explained. “I actually got to go meet her and measure her and see if it worked for her.”

The students would wait hours for each completed drafted version on the 3D printer.

“At first, it was mostly on me to see if this product would even work,” Branson Blaylock, Tennessee Tech mechanical engineering student, said. “So I took a big shot in the dark just by saying [..] basically rubber would even work. So my team was counting on me because it didn’t work, and we would have to go back to square one.”

“There were so many drafts,” Page said. “And I am glad we did because we got it exactly how she wanted it.”

“We were just sitting there like, wow, we just accomplished this,” Blaylock said

The final product was durable yet flexible, allowing drumstick attachments for both arms.

“She just had such better sound quality,” Page said. “And the way we designed the “wrist” of the arm like it had some flexibility to get that paradiddle-type sound.”

“I did get to see it fitting on her arm, and that was something so cool,” Henson expressed. “Ultimately, I wanted to use my knowledge in mechanical engineering to help someone.”

Aubrey told News 2 it gave her the sound she had hoped for and much more.

“I had hope to be able to continue this [drumming],” Aubrey said. “It was kind of unbelievable because I am like building their [the students’] future.”

“They were so enthusiastic and determined to make it work,” Aubrey recalled. “I appreciated that because they made something that I am going to use for a while.”

In the near future, now that she has two firm grasps on the sticks, Aubrey said that she plans to play a full set of drums with her new prosthetics.

Meanwhile, in the fall, the Tech Engineering for Kids program will serve 12 to 15 kids and families with needs similar to Aubrey’s.