One of the most beautiful aspects of the Maker Movement is how inclusive it is. Anyone can be a maker, and everyone is encouraged to find the maker within. Highly skilled combat veteran Karolyn Smith never considered herself a maker. Having returned home from her deployments with multiple debilitating injuries and PTSD, she found herself heavily medicated and losing hope, with no real solutions in sight. That’s when she met the creative technologists and physicians at UCLA’s Operation Mend, who were able to perform groundbreaking surgery on her that dramatically reduced her pain, increased her mobility, and restored her hope. Emerging technology had, in essence, saved her life.
Then, in a stroke of serendipity, she met a kitten named Sophia at the local shelter who had also suffered a traumatic injury that left her with an amputated leg. Smith saw herself in the kitten and began her mission to change little Sophia’s life by prototyping the first 3D-printed feline prosthetic. Not having a background in technology herself, Smith came into contact with the local vibrant maker community at Fab Lab San Diego, who welcomed her with open arms and helped her find her inner maker. This upcoming weekend, Smith will be sharing her story at the fourth annual Maker Faire San Diego, taking place October 7 and 8 in Balboa Park. We spoke with Smith to learn more.
1. Tell us about the injuries you sustained in combat.
While conducting a combat patrol in the northwestern sector of Baghdad, a roadside bomb detonated on the backside of a light pole. It had clearly been affixed ahead of time. The bomber took into account the height of the Humvee and the height of an average American male (5’10”) — and that’s what actually saved my life. The bomber never expected a 5’6″ female would be in the turret that day. I call this bomb “lucky number 13.”
As we passed the IED/roadside bomb, it was about 2 a.m. and dark. It ignited and a gigantic fireball came at me like a wave of molten fire. My immediate reaction was to gasp, and then I was knocked out, but just for a few seconds. My injures were “secondary to inhalation,” meaning I inhaled the blast. I have sinus issues and am on long-term bronchial medication for life (think of it like exercise-induced asthma). I fractured my lumbar L4, slipped my L5, and herniated my L5 S1. I have tinnitus and have suffered low-grade migraines and hearing loss for 13 years. The injures were a culmination of 13 roadside bomb direct hits on my truck. We think most of the damage was that last lucky number 13.
For the first 6 months of my deployment that started in April of 2004 (the height of the war), we were attacked daily with roadside bombs, mortar attacks, and complex ambushes — it was just brutal. It was my team’s job to patrol that entire sector of Baghdad, as we are Military Police who had to patrol the MSR (main supply routes, or freeways/roadways). We had a very specific mission: to teach Tactics, Techniques and Procedures to nine Iraqi Police Stations within the sector. What made it so much more dangerous is that our FOB (Forward Operating Base: Falcon) was located just off Route Irish, otherwise known as “Hell’s Highway,” the deadliest road in the world at that time.
2. What was the cutting edge treatment used for your own spinal fusion? How did it affect your view of new technologies?
The VA in San Diego was horrible to me when I came home. They had over-medicated me, under-medicated me, wouldn’t return my emails, and left me on high dose opioids for 4 1/2 years. That was their way of fixing my lumbar injuries, which they helped exacerbate. I was really in a very deep dark hole with the VA, emotionally and mentally. It felt like they were really just blowing me off. In a last ditch effort to take control of my own life, I made a choice to go to my Facebook page. I have a handful of famous vets who are good friends, and I posted that I needed the name of an ortho doctor, but not just any doctor — I needed one that someone actually had firsthand experience with. My plan was to pay out of pocket and sell my small home here in San Diego to pay the bill. The high-dose opioids, level-9 pain every single day, and no options from the VA meant I was quickly about to be a suicide statistic and I’d be damned if I was going out without one more fight!
My army buddy Michael Schlitz told me about UCLA’s Operation Mend. I had an appointment within weeks up in Los Angeles and, of course, what took the longest time was the VA transferring the files of my spine. In 2015, Dr. Nick Shamie, professor of Orthopedic Surgery and Neurosurgery at UCLA and one of the top 10 spine surgeons, performed an L4 and L5s1 bone morphogenetic proteins (BMP) anterior lumbar fusion. My fusion is a frontal fusion from the front of my spine where the damage occurred. The surgery took over 9 hours. All my stomach contents, nerves, and bowels had to be placed on my chest for the duration of the procedure and then put back in. The BMP (pictured below) was installed, and it’s the protein removed from the stem cell that has parameters within which my genetic bone will grow back, within the specified parameters that Dr. Shamie and his team set.
The recovery was not easy. I was in bed for a few months because of my nerves and bowels not being happy about being outside for that long and of course just normal recovery from that kind of major surgery. I was on a walker for over a month, but here’s the amazing part: Dr. Shamie placed me on a step-down process to wean me off the opioids the VA had me on for years, and I’ve not touched an opioid for 2 years! My pain is virtually gone! I get achy if I bend over too long, and I’ve lost a bit of forward flexion and will continue to lose up to 30% as I continue to fuse, but that just means I get to ask random attractive men on the street to tie my shoes when they come untied. “Can you tie my shoes? I can’t — some stupid roadside bomb won’t let me get down that far!” It’s worked twice. I’m convinced this is my way to get a date.
My surgery absolutely changes the way I think about technology. It’s my hope that I can be the voice that encourages companies to consider working with the VA Choice Program to provide their advanced products to our wounded veterans at a cost that the federal government can help offset and pay for. Or completely sidestep the VA and have advanced tech companies partner with Operation Mend or create a transparent network that can farm out technology directly to participating doctors. If Operation Mend can provide new lives for the most critically wounded veterans and gift us the best doctors with the newest, most advanced care, then we can cut the veteran suicide rate in half or better.
3. Tell us about the day you met Sophia and the bond you felt.
I walked into the San Diego Human Society and was super nervous. Everyone had made a big deal about me getting not just Sophia, but her bonded mate and boyfriend, Leonidas. When I first saw her, my heart just melted — not because she was limping and a rear amputee, but because, my God, that face is an angel’s face! I scooped her up, and it was just right. She wasn’t scared, and she didn’t squirm to get down. She was just content. I put her down and lifted up Leo. He was like a fluffy tennis ball, so cute and my first boy animal.
Sophia was really a reflection of me. When Sophia was found, she was a mere 8 days old. Her umbilical cord was wrapped around her rear leg, cutting the blood off to her paw. Her mom had left, and she had no mother’s milk, no shelter, no food for at least the first week of her life. The vets at the kitten nursery at the San Diego Humane Society said that she had been trying to get up because her umbilical cord had been tearing at her belly button. So despite the sheer pain that must have caused her, she kept trying to get up, to move, to try and save her own life, but she kept falling down because she was entangled in the cord with her back foot.
No matter how many times she kept falling, she also kept trying to get back up. Even as I sit and type this, it bring tears of pride to me. What a heart on this little girl! That’s why I was so drawn to her: She could’ve given up at any time, and while some can say that’s instinct, I think it’s heart. She has the best heart, and when I have a hard day with PTSD, she just knows it. You’d never know I have social anxiety, but I do from all those pesky IEDs. When I come home from speaking events, my palms are sweaty, and she just runs up to me, jumps on my lap, and rolls over and over on my legs like a dogs. It just cracks me up and then I forget about my sweaty palms!
4. What inspired you to figure out how to create the first 3D printed detachable prosthetic for a cat?
I honestly didn’t know I was doing anything of “firsts.” I had assumed someone had to have already done one before, so I was kind of amazed that no one did. I hated seeing Sophia hopping around — it reminded me of being on the walker (and sometimes crutches when the walker was too inconvenient) that I had when I was recovering from my spinal surgery. I would sit and watch her and think about her hips five years down the line and how animals can get hip dysplasia. I was just trying to be preventive.
My dad always taught me “the 7 P’s”: “previous prior planning prevents piss-poor performance.” That’s how I look at things: in a forward-thinking approach, deconstruct the timeline, then reverse the issue and try and prevent the issue. You’d assume my degree is engineering or tech, but for the last 16 years (including the military), I’ve really been in risk mitigation. In fact, my bachelor’s degree is in Homeland Security Emergency Management. I don’t have a tech background and I’m super new to this industry, which makes what I’m doing even more exciting.
5. Why was it important for you to try to create it yourself rather than find someone to make it for you?
I like failing and succeeding by myself. Sounds kind of egocentric, doesn’t it? I’ve always been that woman that comes up with very tall tasks and sets the bar high — not to show others, not to get my name in papers or make “firsts,” but to show myself I can do this. When I fail — and I do — I’m my worst critic, and I find all the ways I failed, and I try harder.
It’s not that I don’t like working with people — I just find that I forget to actually ask for help because I’ve never really been that way. I was an athlete at a young age, and when I was in team sports, I hated how kids didn’t try as hard as me, and I got frustrated easily. I think I was just too serious of a kid. Then I found the velodrome, and that was perfect for me. I had coaches, listened, learned, then went off and performed by myself, and for nearly a decade I got to shine based on me. So I really found that I liked the feeling of failing and succeeding alone, that I never needed the praise or condolences.
When I went to the army and had to be a teammate, I was really lucky because that’s when I discovered I was an overachiever. I had maxed out every military test there was and graduated the top 2% of my class. I was then assigned to the 127th Military Police Company, 709th MP Battalion, 18th MP Brigade, 5th Corps, Germany, and would be around an entire Brigade of overachievers, so I fit right in! To this day, the 200+ men and women I deployed with, I still talk to, some even daily.
The hard part with this prototype is that because I don’t have the tech background, I’m really maxed out in my design skill set and now I really need to learn to partner with a company to get to the final stage that I see in my head. So with having the honor of speaking at Maker Faire San Diego, this may just be the perfect time for me to begin the conversation of “what’s the next phase.” I always hate to admit when I don’t know, but there comes a time when I realize that the idea warrants a subject matter expert, and that isn’t me.
6. How did you connect with the makers at Fab Lab San Diego? How were you received by the community there?
The makers at Fab Lab San Diego actually contacted me via Sophia’s Facebook page. I had done extensive research and found there wasn’t anyone doing a detachable prosthetic. There was only the implantable surgical option, which had a high infection rate and wasn’t an option I wanted to choose because of Sophia’s tiny size. I had started a GoFundMe page and raised $1,500. That’s when I got a message from the Fab Lab asking if anyone had contacted me yet to help make the prototype. They said they wanted to help, and that’s where it all started.
When I walked into Fab Lab San Diego, I was greeted with warmth and care and made to feel like an innovator, even though I never really considered myself one. It never dawned on me that my concept was innovative when I walked into the lab that day. I was simply trying to solve a problem for little Sophia, and one of the makers in the lab walked up to me and said, “This is the most innovative idea I’ve seen in a long time! This is amazing. You’re such an innovator!” Right then, I literally welled up with tears and just cried. It hit me: I created something. I was a maker. I made something the planet didn’t have. It was one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever had in my life. It must be the same feeling that Einstein had when he realized he discovered relativity.
I say Einstein because there’s a famous photo of Einstein speaking at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion in San Diego’s Balboa Park in 1930, and it’s always inspired me, as I’m a native San Diegan. I wonder if he had the same feeling that I had that moment in the Fab Lab.
7. Tell us about the R&D process of making the prosthetic.
The R&D process is ongoing and is one of the most challenging projects because of Sophia’s size, the way a cat sits, and the fact that it’s a daily chore to get Sophia used to different feelings on her stump. That alone can be a Mount Everest type of hill to climb, but I’m in it for the long climb. Dogs are so much easier to get to accept prosthetics because they just don’t care much. Believe me, cats care!
The first step was getting Sophia’s body scanned into Autodesk Fusion 360, which is the platform we use. I would sit on a chair and have Sophia lay on her back, on my lap, and it would naturally force her to extend her back legs, which would allow her legs to be scanned in the most natural way to give the actual length without hurting her. She actually likes laying that way, and to be honest, it was really cool to see me and her in a 3D picture. I felt like I was in a scene in a movie! As the scan progressed, it told us a lot of information and we moved from there to the designs that we, collectively had already hand drawn as ideas. One of them you see on the cover of our children’s book, Sophia the Bionic Cat. We’re still in the development process.
8. What has been the most challenging part of the build? How have you overcome it?
The most challenging part is how tiny Sophia is. While she is full grown, if you know her story, she can be considered a preemie. She was found with her umbilical cord wrapped around her paw, which choked off the blood supply. She was also abandoned and had no mother’s milk for the first eight days of life. Yet she chose to keep trying to stay alive. So physically, she is fully grown, but she is actually delicate. It’s a challenge to find the right combination of a harness to keep the prosthetic on, finding the right combination of product that is light enough to not weigh her down. The way I’m going to overcome it is by progressing into more advanced technology — and for that exciting news, you’ll have to come back and check up on us.
9. How did you connect with the Fleet Science Center?
I connected with the Fleet Science Center by sending an email and connecting to Ashanti Davis, the exhibits project supervisor. I literally cold-emailed her and pitched my children’s book. What Fab Lab has taught me is that I have a story, and what my deployment has taught me is that the worst anyone can tell me is no, but no one is trying to blow me up, so nowadays I just think big. And what bigger of a place that deals in STEM/STEAM locally here in San Diego than the Fleet Science Center? I felt like they needed to hear my story firsthand. Ashanti emailed me back and was excited. We set an appointment and I came and talked to her about my story. She was literally in tears listening to my story, and we’ve been friends ever since.
10. Tell us about 3 Paws Up. What do you hope to accomplish?
3 Paws Up is really a motto for life. We’re all born with a deck of cards, and the first few cards we’re dealt are sometimes not so good (born with a disability, born into poverty, born into abuse, born into divorce, born into cancer, etc.). Some people have cards that are good and some that are not so good, but those are your cards. We all have a story. Sometimes your bad cards hit you at birth, and sometimes your bad cards hit you as a baby, sometimes as teen, or sometimes later in life. At the end of the day, we’ve all got a story of struggle, but you’ve still got the chance to pull another good card. You just have to be open to the opportunities and don’t ever give up!
Do you know why the rearview mirror in a vehicle is so small and the front windshield is so vast? I will tell you, but first let me tell you the mistake so many people make and what I talk about in part of the speaking events that I do around the nation. You see, when people get bad cards (going through hard times) in their life, they’re constantly focused on staring in the rearview mirror and they keep crashing (cyclical) time and time again. The rearview mirror is small for a reason: it’s only there for you to take brief glimpses of your past mistakes, your past achievements, etc. The front windshield is so vast because of all the amazing possibilities ahead of you.
3 Paws Up wants people to remember that life is a one-time shot: no take backs, no do overs. Stop looking at the rearview mirror, stop dwelling on the bad cards, and start focusing on the front windshield because the more you look out the front windshield to see what you do have, the more you’ll be receptive to the great new cards that you still have coming to you. That invention you’ve been sitting on but are too afraid to share for fear of failure, or that concept you’re afraid to share because you’re scared of ridicule: Stop waiting, and start doing! Sophia sitting in that field could have easily given up. Every odd was against her, and I could’ve easily left her as an amputee. Remember, at the end of the game of life, you should be able to look back at your “hand” and say, “That wasn’t a half bad game!” At 3 Paws Up, we just want you to play the best game of life you can because you never know how you can impact the planet. Remember to #LeaveALegacy.
11. How’s Sophia doing now?
Sophia is awesome! She’s playful, happy, and funny. Initially, I really wanted Sophia to be a therapy cat, but we had a very cool opportunity when Jackson Galaxy from the Animal Planet came to our house and filmed a special episode of “My Cat from Heaven” that showcased our unique story. Jackson made a comment that Leonidas, Sophia’s bonded mate, was best suited to be a therapy cat because of his outgoing personality, and Sophia really was more of the quiet shy type. It really made me look at Sophia’s personality and make sure I’m doing what’s best for her, so she makes guest appearances at special events and that suits her just fine!
12. What has been the most rewarding part of seeking all this knowledge out yourself?
I don’t have kids — mostly because the injuries I sustained made my recovery take most of my child-bearing years — so going through this entire process myself must be like watching a child grow, without the morning sickness but with all the concerns, all the late nights, the early mornings, all the worries, all the “where will I get the money from” all the “how am I going to make this work.” I feel like now my baby is off to kindergarten.
13. What’s the biggest lesson that this experience has taught you?
That I’m an innovator. And each time I tell myself that, I literally giggle like a school girl. When I think of an innovator, I think of Elon Musk and the big players, not Karolyn Smith. This experience has really taught me, though, to be very careful when exposing my R&D because all your hard work can be replicated by someone else who has much deeper pockets, just so they can get their name out their quicker. It’s a dog-eat-dog world and patent protection is the name of the game. Always protect yourself.
14. Do you already have ideas for future projects you want to pursue?
I do. I just signed a speaking contract with Biocom to be their speaker for their gala here in San Diego. Biocom represents 800 of the life science companies in San Diego. If I can tell my story, show how advanced tech can not just give me a better life but help me thrive so I can help change the world, perhaps other companies will consider the concept of partnerships like Operation Mend or something similar. You never know how many private companies have an app that can help with PTSD that they use for something completely different, or a company that uses a 3 or 4D tech that can be applied to a veteran’s wheelchair to add something to improve their life. I don’t completely know why I lived through Iraq, but what I do know is that I have emerging technology in my belly that saved my life, changed my life, propelled my life, and is helping me thrive in life.
Come meet Karolyn Smith and hundreds of other inspiring makers at this year’s Maker Faire San Diego.