PHILADELPHIA — Andrew Bender lives in virtually constant pain from a skiing accident that broke his back five years ago.
He can spend only about four hours a day in his wheelchair because his spine bends like rubber. He has to prop himself with his arms to take pressure off his back.
"It's not easy," said Bender, 21. "I don't have much of a choice right now."
But things are looking up for Bender, who was the subject of a yearlong project by students enrolled in a course to design devices to ease physical problems.
Bender's mother, Carol Schilling, teaches English at the University of Pennsylvania and got in touch with Prof. Daniel K. Bogen.
Bogen agreed to assign the project to his senior bioengineering class last fall.
In April, his 37 students demonstrated air-driven devices designed to let Bender sit comfortably for longer periods--and perhaps enable him to go to college.
The students showed Bender, his parents and about 100 people how his spine would straighten as air was let out of a wheelchair's seat cushion while his upper body was anchored by an inflatable vest.
Bender received copies of the designs and the students' notes, signed by each student. Some of the devices will be refined and added to his equipment this summer.
"I think it's great," Bender said. "Especially the support-type devices, taking the weight off my back."
Bender's family has searched for equipment that would help, with limited success. He has a hard brace that can hold him up, but it's extremely uncomfortable.
"The pain has really stopped his life," his mother said.
The students were ready for the challenge.
"Everything that we'd done before was hypothetical," said Sanjay Desai, 21, of Baltimore. "We know someone is going to benefit from this."
Bender wants to study engineering or computer science. "Cosmology has always interested me, but there's not much of a career there," he said.
Bender was 16 when he approached a mogul, or bump, on a ski slope in the Pocono Mountains in 1988. "When I got close, I saw there was a big ditch," he said.
His skis stuck and his body kept going. He flipped, landed on his back and broke his fifth vertebra. "Luckily, the cord wasn't severed," he said. "It was bruised and there was swelling."
After more than six months in hospitals, Bender was able to go home and finish his last two years of high school. At the time, he could sit up 14 hours a day. He got his driver's license and the family was preparing to have a van adapted for him to drive.
About six months before graduation, he started getting backaches. They got worse.
"The best description that we have is that it's mechanical pain," said his mother. "The muscles in his lower back are completely paralyzed, so there's nothing to give his back stability. The pain has really stopped his life."
Bogen had decided before Schilling approached him that he wanted to focus an entire bioengineering class on a project for an entire school year. He wrote his students before classes started last fall.
"I'm putting you on the line," he told them. "You have a real client with a real problem."
The devices are designed specifically for Bender but could have wider applications. The cost of materials was about $3,000.