College Student Develops Pain Free Socket

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By Betta Ferrendelli

Device aims to eliminate phantom pain in amputees using thermal biofeedback.

Katherine Bomkamp

Katherine Bomkamp, a West Virginia University sophomore, developed the Pain Free Socket-a device she hopes will eliminate phantom pain in amputees. Photograph courtesy of West Virginia University, M.G. Ellis.

When Katherine Bomkamp was 16 years old sitting in a waiting room at the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC), Washington DC, with her father, a disabled United States Air Force veteran of 20 years, she experienced something that would change her young life forever.

"The military is so slow for everything," remembers Bomkamp, who is now 20 and a sophomore at West Virginia University (WVU), Morgantown. "You'd spend hours in waiting rooms."

It was during those long periods waiting to be called for her father's appointments that Bomkamp began talking to wounded veterans who had returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Many were amputees who were only a few years older than she was. A subject that came up often was phantom pain and how difficult it was for the soldiers to deal with. Some would describe their pain as a burning sensation. Others said it was as if thousands of needles were constantly sticking them in their residual limb.

According to George Gondo, the research and analytics/special grants manager for the Amputee Coalition, "Phantom pain, the pain of a non-existent limb caused by the brain continuing to send signals and commands to the limb, affects roughly 80 percent of the nearly two million amputees in the United States."

Watching those young wounded veterans deal with the lingering effects of phantom pain stirred something within Bomkamp. "I knew I wanted to do something to help them," she says.

About the same time, Bomkamp's high school science teacher wanted her students to complete a project that would have a positive impact on society for the school's International Science and Engineering Fair. Her conversations with the wounded veterans were fresh in her mind, so Bomkamp decided to tackle trying to eliminate phantom pain. She wanted to take an approach that did not involve powerful, highly addictive drugs such as morphine, so she incorporated thermal biofeedback, used primarily in treating headaches, to eliminate the phantom pain amputees feel. She says she's not anti-medication, but she wanted to pursue a more holistic approach. "I'm asthmatic," she says. "I take more medication than a 60-year-old."

Bomkamp began her high school science project by talking with several phantom pain experts. Those conversations were the genesis of her soon-to-be patented device: the Pain Free Socket. Now in its fourth generation, the device is ready for human testing. Though there were "significant" design changes in the first three generations, Bomkamp says the foundational concept for the prototype remains unchanged.

The Pain Free Socket incorporates "thermo-resistive wiring connected to a lithium-ion battery pack inside of a below-the-knee prosthetic socket," Bomkamp says. "This allows concentrated and controlled heat to stimulate severed nerve endings in the residual limb, effectively stopping the brain's signals to the amputated limb. This thermal biofeedback forces the brain to focus on the heat rather than send signals and commands to the [amputated] limb. The concentrated heat also works as a muscle relaxant for the residual limb."

One might expect the inventor of such a device to have a science and engineering background, but Bomkamp is a political science major. She has a 4.0 grade point average and she plans to become a corporate attorney. She says she wasn't interested in science before she began the Pain Free Socket project, but she wanted to help veterans like those she talked to in WRAMC waiting rooms. "I identified with those soldiers," she says. "Any one of them could have been my dad." She has even started her own company, Katherine Bomkamp International. She was the first WVU student to be inducted into the National Museum of Education's National Gallery for America's Young Inventors, Washington DC. She was also recognized with an award from the International Council on Systems Engineering in 2010. In February, Bomkamp traveled to London, where she was asked by the Royal Society of Medicine to speak at its summit on the topic of innovation. Bomkamp is the youngest person who has ever been asked to present at the summit.

Jake Godak, who has worked in O&P for more than 15 years as a prosthetic and orthotic technician, works with Bomkamp as a consultant. Godak, Bomkamp's first mentor on the Pain Free Socket project, says he liked the young student from the first time he spoke with her. Godak was working as a technician at Cascade Orthopedic Supply, Chico, California, when Bomkamp reached out to him for help. (She found him by calling a list of prosthetic companies hoping to find a mentor.) "I was impressed with someone at her age thinking outside her own interest to help others," says Godak, who now lives in Montana.

Bomkamp says Godak took her "seriously from the start." He built the first socket and eventually the first prosthetic leg.

Bomkamp has come a long way in the past four years, Godak says. He describes Bomkamp's initial questions as broad and vague. Today, her knowledge reflects how much she has learned. "Now she asks specific and direct questions. She definitely knows what she's doing," Godak says.

As interest for the Pain Free Socket began to build, Bomkamp came to realize that she needed help in creating a business plan. That's when Bomkamp's business advisor came to her.

"I stalked her," says Mindy Walls, JD, the former director of the WVU College of Business & Economics Entrepreneurship Center. She read an article about Bomkamp's Pain Free Socket in the campus newspaper. "She was a poly-sci student who had no connection to the business center. We like to focus on students outside the business school."

Walls invited the young innovator to lunch. Their conversation centered on how to turn Bomkamp's socket into a business, and Walls was just the go-to person Bomkamp needed. Walls has put Bomkamp in touch with people who have helped her to develop and build her business. "Once you take other people's money, it's not just a project anymore, but a business," Walls says.

Walls was confident that Bomkamp would have no problem making her business successful. "Students like this are a teacher's dream," Walls says. "She gets it the first time. Katherine knows what she wants, and sometimes you forget she is still just a student. Her maturity level is remarkable."

Then when fabrication for the socket was set to get under way and Bomkamp needed an O&P facility to design and build it, she didn't want to look too far from home. Enter Morgantown Orthotic & Prosthetic Center (Morgantown O&P) and Mark Gorman, CPO. Gorman met Bomkamp through a friend who works at WVU, who said he might be interested in meeting her and learning about her project.

Morgantown O&P is currently preparing the socket for user trials, Gorman says.

Walls says her goal is to continue to help Bomkamp take the Pain Free Socket as far as she can. "Money is not the motivator," she says. "This girl is going to be successful whatever she does."

Gorman couldn't agree more. "Katherine has surrounded herself with people who have helped her be exposed to real-world issues yet [have kept her] somewhat protected, like good mentors do," Gorman says. "But be assured that she will maintain control of her project. She is becoming a well-rounded team leader."

Betta Ferrendelli can be reached at