She went to Walter Reed Hospital. She saw a medical mystery. She developed a treatment.
In an "I came, I saw, I conquered" scenario, Katherine Bomkamp, daughter of an Air Force lieutenant colonel, has invented the Pain Free Socket -- a heating device to be incorporated into prosthetic limbs to treat phantom pain, which a high percentage of people with amputations experience in their nonexistent limbs.
Her well-documented saga began five years ago when she was just 15. Because her father worked at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., she went to the military hospital for medical appointments. There she encountered young soldiers who'd returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with amputated limbs.
"That really affected me," she said. "I would talk to them, and they would tell me about their experience with phantom pain."
Seeing soldiers with amputations "started a train of thought."
"When you pull a muscle, you put heat on it. So let's see if I can apply that same idea of biothermal feedback from concentrated and controlled heat for phantom pain," she said.
That idea already was in use, but it required the patient to be immobilized while hooked to a large machine. "I wanted to see if I could incorporate that into a prosthetic device," she said. "I thought I could adapt the idea to all prosthetics -- arms, legs, gloves for people without fingers and socks for people without toes."
She has two U.S. patents pending on that concept.
Now 20 and a rising junior at West Virginia University, Ms. Bomkamp was one of the volunteers who helped students last week during the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center -- the world's largest high-school science competition, involving 1,549 students competing for more than $3 million in prizes and scholarships.
Among her many awards and honors, Ms. Bomkamp in 2009 won $500 for her fourth-place finish in bioengineering at the fair. The following year she received recognition from the Internal Council on Systems Engineering for a project designed to improve the human condition.
Glamour magazine last October named her as one of 21 amazing young women. The first WVU student to be inducted into the National Gallery for America's Young Inventors, Ms. Bomkamp also was the youngest person ever to give a presentation at the Summit of Innovation at the Royal Society of Medicine in London.
All these accomplishments are even more remarkable given a diagnosis she received just a month ago: dyscalculia, often described as the math version of dyslexia. The disability can be so severe that the person can't translate a cardinal number, such as 5, into the concept of five objects, or is unable to understand which number comes before or after it.
She has learned to work around the disability in creating her bioengineering designs.
As a teenager, she produced two prototypes she said were rough in design and engineering. The third now in development will incorporate all the electronics inside the prosthetic socket and be professionally engineered.
She continues receiving help from WVU officials in developing and marketing her idea, while working to inspire other university students to pursue their goals.
Her Pain Free Socket attempts to address a problem that has largely confounded science. Phantom pain is real, even if the location isn't.
It's experienced by 70 percent to 80 percent of people with amputations, said Jack Kabazie, medical director of the Institute for Pain Medicine at West Penn Hospital. But the often persistent pain remains somewhat of a medical mystery with no surefire treatment.
Phantom pain initially involves pain signals that severed nerves once serving the now-missing limb continue sending to the brain. But the brain also begins remapping itself to make sense of the missing limb, Dr. Kabazie said, describing a complicated process involving the brain, spinal cord and psychological factors. During remapping, nerves from neighboring parts of the brain begin growing into the now largely inactive region that had controlled the limb. Those rogue nerves begin producing pain signals the person perceives to be occurring in the nonexistent limb, he said.
Treatments include various drugs, stump desensitization, spinal cord stimulation and distraction, which Dr. Kabazie said is the approach Ms. Bomkamp is using by having the brain focus on heat rather than pain.
Hearing of her invention, Dr. Kabazie said, "As long as it's not invasive, it can't hurt."
Jay Cole, chief of staff to WVU President James P. Clements, described Ms. Bomkamp as a young entrepreneur who's doing impressive work, which he said exemplifies the spirit the university hopes to cultivate in its students.
"She is a source of great pride to us -- the fact that she's committed to development of a new device and has competed successfully at Intel 2009 and 2010 as a woman in a highly technical field," he said.
She is often asked why she's a political science major, with interests in a law degree, rather than bioengineering. Her math disability makes it clear she would not have succeeded in engineering. That hasn't quashed ambitions to be an inventor and businesswoman.
With her latest prototype, she'll seek U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval to test her socket on patients as proof of concept. She's also entertaining ideas to develop other treatment devices, including one for neurological pain.
"I have frustrating days, but the support I have at school has just been overwhelming, and I can't ask for anything more than that," Ms. Bomkamp said. "I'm very determined to make this happen."
David Templeton: email@example.com or 412-263-1578. First Published May 21, 2012 4:00 AM