Like many expectant fathers, Josh Basile envisioned the day his son, Calder, would be born. He imagined holding, feeding, and taking care of the infant. But he knew that even these most fundamental interactions would be challenging.
When Basile was a teenager, an ocean wave off a beach in Delaware picked him up and threw him headfirst into the sand, paralyzing him below his shoulders. Most baby carriers designed for people with similar disabilities are made for those with more mobility in their upper body.
On the advice of a friend, Basile, a medical malpractice attorney from Potomac, Maryland, got in touch with Johns Hopkins University's Department of Biomedical Engineering in January—two months before his partner's due date. His goal? A device that would allow him to interact with his baby face-to-face, strengthen the father-son bond, and safely transport the child on his wheelchair.
Eileen Haase, associate director of the biomedical engineering undergraduate program, put out a call via email for students interested in tackling this challenge.
"Right away, more than a dozen biomedical and mechanical engineering students volunteered. This project would be in addition to their work from the semester, but so many of our students felt passionate about helping this family," Haase says.
The 16 student volunteers formed two teams, competing with each other to find the best solution to Basile's challenge. One team, including rising junior biomedical engineering major Eric McAlexander, envisioned a platform with metal arms that would secure an infant or car seat to Basile's wheelchair, enabling the two to make direct eye contact.
Weight was a key factor in that team's design. If the platform was too heavy, the entire wheelchair could tip over. So the team decided to construct the device out of aluminum.
"Aluminum is lightweight, corrosion resistant, and strong enough for our applications. It also was easy to cut when we were making the frame and provides a stable mounting surface," McAlexander explained.
The other team, which included Nyeli Kratz, a rising biomedical engineering senior, was interested in exploring designs that would help Basile bond with his baby.
For this project, Kratz and her teammates drew on their experiences as part of the biomedical engineering, BME, department's Undergraduate Design Team program, which tasks students with developing solutions to various real-life health care challenges.
"I had done a similar design project my freshman and sophomore year. It was a standing mobility device for a kid with paraplegia," Kratz says. "[To help Basile], our group wanted to do more robotics, electronics, and sensors. We wanted to give him more ways to interact with his baby."
These teams worked on their projects in the BME Design Studio, which provides space and resources for undergraduate and graduate students to brainstorm, design, prototype, build, and test solutions.
Both teams were exploring their separate solutions when Calder arrived three-and-a-half weeks early. Wanting to get the device to the new father as quickly as possible, the teams joined forces. They dropped the idea of incorporating robotics into the mix and settled on an elegantly simple approach: a sturdy tray that would secure an infant or car seat to Basile's wheelchair.
Kratz's team worked in the "above tray" group. Her team constructed a platform that would hold the seat and a lock to keep it in place.
McAlexander's team worked "below tray," building a frame that attaches to the wheelchair's rails via posts and allows the platform to slide up and down, keeping the baby at Basile's eye level.
Days after Calder was born, Basile visited the BME Design Studio to test and learn how to use his new device. Guided by feedback from Basile, the students made some last-minute tweaks before sending the new father home to see how their invention performed in real life.
Basile is still emotional when he describes his first moments eye-to-eye with Calder safely ensconced on the secure wheelchair baby-carrier platform.
"I couldn't stop staring at him. These moments of my life I'll never forget because of these students. The end result is perfection," he says.
It was during a neighborhood carnival that Basile fully realized how much this invention was helping him interact with his son, just as he imagined before Calder was born.
"I was on daddy duty. I had the baby on my chair, wheeling him all around. It gave me that independence to care for my son," he says.
"The goal was always to improve his life, and that's what we did. It's what makes all those hours in the machine shop worth it," McAlexander says.
Kratz shared this sentiment, saying, "This is why I came to Johns Hopkins. I wanted to use what I was learning to help people with disabilities. This hit my interest really well. It's always the dream for projects like this. We had the ability to affect someone's life immediately. Even though this was a volunteer project, it kept me motivated this entire semester, knowing we can impact change."