Brace for Impact

CAES alum uses biological engineering degree to assist UGA athletes

During the 2018 NCAA regional baseball tournament this past June, University of Georgia third baseman Aaron Schunk made a valiant attempt to field a foul ball down the third base line in a winner’s bracket game against Troy University.

Unfortunately, he tumbled over a railing on the third base line, face-planting on a handrail and breaking his nose.

But thanks to a College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences alumnus and state-of-the-art prosthetic technology, Schunk was back on the field by the team’s next game.

William Fletcher (BSBE – Biological Engineering, ’03), a prosthetist/orthotist with Hanger Clinic, manages offices in Athens, Lawrenceville, Monroe and Milledgeville, Georgia.

His company makes prosthetics, braces, cranial helmets and other equipment to restore function and protect patients from further injury.

The night Schunk was injured, the UGA sports medicine staff approached Fletcher for assistance to design a custom face mask that would allow Schunk to finish the tournament. Fletcher used a 3D digital scanner to scan Schunk’s face. Fletcher then used a machine to carve the shape and build a protective device over it.

“When you’re looking at making protective devices, there are a lot of nuances that are involved. It has to be able to protect the injured body part. We want to try to return our student athletes (to the field) as fast as we can, but as safely as we can, and it’s got to be functional as well,” said Ron Courson, director of sports medicine with the University of Georgia Athletic Association. “For example, if you put a face mask on someone but it affects their peripheral vision, you may have returned them to activity and protected them, but you didn’t allow them to compete at the optimal level.”

Fletcher’s creativity helped Schunk return to the baseball diamond the next day, equipped with a face mask, to play two games against Duke.

“(Fletcher) really recognizes the sense of urgency in athletics,” Courson said. “It’s not like a typical patient where you can make an appointment and be evaluated and two weeks later you have a product. In athletics, there’s always a sense of urgency. He’s been very accommodating with his schedule, working with us and our athletes.”

Fletcher was also on hand to help UGA starting quarterback Jake Fromm, who broke the fifth metacarpal in the palm of his non-throwing hand prior to the 2018 season. The UGA sports medicine staff requested a device Fromm could practice in during seven-on-seven drills that summer.

Fletcher said the standard of care for that type of injury is a brace that immobilizes the fourth and fifth finger and the wrist. Instead, he designed and built a carbon-fiber and silicone brace that stabilized the fracture without limiting finger or wrist motion.

Fromm received the brace within a few days of the injury and was immediately able to practice in seven-on-seven drills without limiting his performance. He wore the brace all through the team’s summer workouts and through fall camp. When the season started, Fromm transitioned to a custom silicone partial glove with a small carbon plate for impact protection that he wore through game seven versus LSU.

“In order to capture the shape of Jake’s hand, we used a material that the movie industry uses to fabricate facial masks for stunt doubles to make them look like they’re somebody else. The impression material captured details all the way down to his hand print and finger print,” Fletcher said.

Fromm started and played in all 14 games for the Bulldogs’ 2018 season. Fletcher has also assisted with carbon-fiber ankle braces for other members of the football team that are made of the same materials that he uses for his prosthetics patients. The braces were mounted on the outside of cleats and helped the players keep playing without sustaining future ankle injuries.

“Anything that would need to be braced, we do that,” Fletcher said, admitting that there is a lot of trial and error when designing these types of support braces.

“Some of these football players are pushing 6 feet, seven inches tall, 340 pounds. You’re not talking about a small human being, you’re talking about someone who’s gigantic,” Fletcher said. “All of the devices we have readily available are designed for average people, not elite athletes the size of collegiate football players. Everything that we make for UGA student-athletes has to be custom designed.”

Fletcher keeps in close contact with Courson and the injured athletes to ensure the braces are working correctly.

“He wants everything to be exactly right,” Courson said. “Every time we put a brace on somebody, he wants to follow up with me or them. He’ll ask, ‘How did it do today?’ ‘How did it feel?’ I really like the way that he operates. He does things in a first-class manner all the time.”

By Clint Thompson

Jake Fromm wearing brace on left hand
After UGA starting quarterback Jake Fromm broke a bone in his left hand in 2018, CAES alumnus William Fletcher designed a brace that allowed him to practice while the injury healed and a protective glove for the regular season.

Aaron Shunk with custom mask
Using a 3D image of UGA third-baseman Aaron Schunk’s face, Fletcher created a custom mask that allowed Schunk to finish out the 2018 NCAA regional baseball tournament after breaking his nose.