While still in high school, Katherine Bomkamp came up with the idea of a prosthetic device that eases phantom limb pain in amputees. With determination and a bit of creativity, she demonstrated that a good idea trumps technical knowledge, and that nothing is impossible with a dose of determination.
It all started in Maryland, where Bomkamp was a high school student at a magnet school. Her father is a disabled Air Force veteran, and while in a waiting room at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., Bomkamp listened as amputee soldiers from Afghanistan complained about phantom pain. Phantom pain is a condition that causes pain in the area of the missing limb. Normally, people experiencing phantom pain are prescribed antipsychotics and barbiturates, which are both highly addictive and very costly.
“They would tell me their stories, and phantom pain kept coming up,” stated Bomkamp “So I wanted to see if I could eliminate the need for those drugs holistically.”
Although she lacked engineering and medical expertise, when her chemistry teacher announced a school wide science fair, Bomkamp decided that her lack of knowledge wasn’t a roadblock to creating a solution. Thinking back to the soldiers she met at the clinic, she decided to try to find a way to give back to those who gave so much.
“My thought process was: When I pull a muscle, I apply heat to it,” explained Bomkamp. “If I applied the same concept to treating phantom pain, I thought that could work.”
Her approach was to email engineering professors at local universities and ask them for help. Their response was overwhelming, and after several offers Bomkamp chose nearby University of Maryland. Every Friday she traveled to the college campus to meet with Professor Gilmer Blankenship and lab manager Jay Renner, both with the Electrical and Computer Engineering department.
“They taught me electrical engineering from the bottom up — electrical programming, heat wiring,” she stated. “Basically, everything, they had to teach me.”
Together, they came up with a crude prototype for the Pain Free Socket, using heated socks for a heat source. After the prototype, Bomkamp continued her grass roots approach to find someone who would take her seriously and help build the prosthetic. The task was challenging, as most prosthetics cost over $15,000. According to Bomkamp, many of the companies she reached out to dismissed her offhand by saying, “This won’t work, you’re just a kid, don’t waste my time.”
Determination prevailed, and with the help of Jake Godak of Chico, CA prosthetic supply company Cascade, she acquired a custom built socket and leg. In the newer prototype, ribbing cable replaced the heated socks and a thermostat was added to control the amount of heat received from the device.
Now a student at West Virginia University, Bomkamp has started her own company, where she is working on new prototypes for the socket, including one that can be controlled by a cell phone application. The device will begin testing after her patent is approved, and she is in negotiations with companies for licensing rights once the Food and Drug Administration approves her final prototype.
What seemed like an impossible feat was made possible with the naive determination of a high school girl and the assistance of engineering professionals. Now, Bomkamp hopes to receive a small percentage of the profits as royalties if her device proves to be successful.