Hailey Dawson, 5, threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Orioles game. She was born with no fingers on her right hand. Hailey received a 3-D printed prosthetic hand created by engineering students from UNLV. (Kevin Richardson)
It's not often that the perfunctory first pitch ceremony before a Major League Baseball game can tug at your heartstrings and also provide a window into a brave new technological era.
Five-year-old Hailey Dawson stepped out in front of home plate at Camden Yards on Monday night and threw the ball a few feet, but the distance that really mattered was how far her parents and a group of dedicated researchers and mechanical engineers went to make this moment possible.
Dawson has Poland Syndrome, which means she was born without a pectoral muscle and a functional right hand, but that has not stopped her from dreaming of playing baseball like her brother and it certainly didn't stop her family, who live in Las Vegas, from searching for a way to make that dream come true.
Orioles fans got to see the result of that quest — a futuristic prosthetic hand that was produced by a 3D printer at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. It is a custom "Flexihand" that is fitted not only to Hailey's wrist and hand, but also to her interests and activities. It's bright orange to reflect her love for the Orioles, handed down by her father, who is from Hagerstown.
The prosthetic hand even features an Orioles logo and brand-new autograph from her favorite player, Manny Machado, who caught the ceremonial first pitch.
Once she became comfortable with her new hand, Hailey threw out the first pitch at a UNLV baseball game. Her mother wondered if she could do the same at Camden Yards.
"I picked eight different names from the front office and sent a two-page letter with a whole bunch of players," Yong Dawson said. "They called me back and said 'Let's do it.' "
Yong Dawson also got a personal call from Orioles executive vice president John Angelos.
"We talked for awhile and he asked so many questions about Hailey and what was going on with her, and her hand," Yong said. "Ultimately, the goal is not for her to just have her dream come true, but to also expose the hand ... people can get this hand and it's available to anybody."
There are, of course, conventional prosthetic hands available for children and adults, but the cost is prohibitive for the family of a young child whose early growth spurt will require periodic replacements over the course of her childhood and adolesence. The 3D printer option is much more affordable, but it was the result of a monthslong development process that involved mechanical engineering researchers on two continents.
The concept came from South Africa, where an organization called Robohand pioneered 3D technology to produce low-cost prosthetic hands and offers it open-source to anyone who wants to use it. The researchers at UNLV could not find a perfect match for Hailey, so a group of engineers, researchers and students went about the painstaking work of making one.
"You've got 18- and 19-year-olds building a hand for a little 5-year-old,'' Yong Dawson said. "When they finished the first hand, I was actually able to see their reaction when they watched her use if for the first time."
And Orioles fans got to see her use it to throw out a very special ceremonial first pitch on Monday night.