Not Impossible

The art and joy of doing what couldn’t be done.

Mick Ebeling | Not Impossible Labs

The following is an excerpt from Mick Ebeling’s book, Not Impossible: The Art and Joy of Doing What Couldn’t Be Done. 

Which would you rather have screw you up totally: the heat or the insects? That was the choice we faced when we tried to make a hand for Daniel in Yida.

We had transferred our operation to a larger compound, run by the non-governmental organization that was watching out for us. The officials of the group asked me not to name them because they feel that staying anonymous allows them to help people without getting involved in the political situation. I wish I could tell you more about them. They’re humble, gracious, remarkable people.

Compared to the DOE compound, this one was immense. To the left of the entrance were parked ATVs and Land Cruisers that the volunteers used to get around the camp; to the right, the tents where they lived. Tim was bunking with me, and I would learn soon enough that the man can snore louder than anyone I’d ever known.

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Which would you rather have screw you up totally: the heat or the insects?

In front, there was a big round hut that served as a gathering place for meals and meetings and group activities and a smaller tent that served as a makeshift commissary.

Behind them was a kitchen, a generator shack and a fairly large toolshed, which would become my entire world for the next seven days. The shed was about the size of a one-car garage with no windows. A second open shed was attached to it, with a tarp for a roof. Next to them was a third, smaller, open structure with a metal roof, which I set up as my printing station.

Manufacturing possibilities

The next day, Daniel and his younger brother, Shaki, walked over right on time — we gave them breakfast, so they were always on time. It was kind of amazing to learn of how Shaki had been taking care of Daniel — feeding him, dressing him, wiping his [backside], doing everything for him — without complaint, without fuss, as though it were the most normal thing in the world.

It was even more astounding when I found out that although they called each other “brothers,” they weren’t actually.

In their culture, I learned, it’s pretty common to call someone brother or uncle, even when you are distantly related. Daniel’s dad was Shaki’s dad’s second cousin, or something like that. To see Shaki caring for Daniel was, for me, a lesson in true, unconditional love. It was pretty humbling.

After breakfast, they settled in for what I’d warned them would be a long day. Daniel had more patience than any 14-year-old boy I’d ever met. Over the next few days, he would sit for hours on end, just watching me work. I can’t imagine my own kids doing that for more than 10 minutes.

But kids are more the same than they are different, I have to say. We’d brought some tablets with us to drive the 3D printers. We gave them to Daniel and Shaki to use while we were getting things set up. We had loaded them up with some video games, and although the boys had probably never seen a tablet or a video game in their lives, it took them about no time to get totally into it.

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The 3D printers just didn’t want to work in that 100-degree heat.

It was a bit surreal, seeing Daniel using the stumps of his arms as deftly as other kids use their thumbs and forefingers to race cars on the screen. He was blasting aliens and tossing angry birds around like any suburban kid in America, only doing it in the midst of such primitive surroundings, such bleak devastation.

But there we were. Daniel and Shaki, playing their video games, while I labored nearby, trying to make Daniel a new hand. Trying and failing and cursing, I should say.

Occasionally, I would call Daniel over so I could adjust the arm fittings or test some part of the arm. He would be in the middle of a video game, and would do what any 14-year-old does when an adult calls them away from a video game. He would ignore me.

I’d say, “Daniel! Come on. Come over here.” And he would regretfully relinquish control of the video game to Shaki, who would snatch it from him; and then Daniel would drag himself over to me, sighing and letting out a low moan, to make sure I knew he was not happy that he had had to give up what was surely his high score of the day.

As I’ve said, kids everywhere are more the same than they are different. The 3D printers just didn’t want to work in that 100-degree heat. The shed was so blasted hot that the filament kept melting onto itself on the spool and wouldn’t feed through the extruder.

We put two oscillating fans on the printers, which seemed to work at first, but it was so dusty that the fans blew a lot of dirt into the motors, so they clogged up and stopped working, and we had to take them apart and fix them.

We finally gave up and decided to print at night, when it was cooler. It was late by the time I finally got everything working properly.

I stuck around for the first hour of night printing, and all seemed to be going swimmingly. Exhausted, I locked up with the padlock the NGO had given me, donned my head lamp and headed off to find my tent and my foghorn of a tent mate.

The next morning, I woke up and ran excitedly to the shed to see if we had gotten a first print off. But when I unlocked the shed, much to my dismay I discovered that not only had we not gotten a print off successfully, but I was going to have to spend the morning extracting the carcasses of these prehistoric-sized moths from the printer motors.

We had not taken into account the fact that there were so many more bugs at night. The light that the printer gave off attracted these creatures, and they had jammed themselves into the printer motors in some sort of crazed kamikaze bug mission.

Achieving the seemingly impossible

So there was our choice: Deal with the computer bugs in the system by day or deal with actual bugs clogging up the system by night. It was making me crazy.

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I was going to try to assemble a full arm and hand and fit it on an actual person.

But somehow, after about a day of trying, we managed to print a hand for Daniel. Or all the pieces of a hand, anyway. I was pretending not to be terrified that, for only the second time in my life — and the first time completely unsupervised — I was going to try to assemble a full arm and hand and fit it on an actual person in a way that would actually allow him to do something; in this case, our first and primary goal was for him to feed himself.

Daniel, in some ways, has the face of an old man; he has a tiredness in his eyes, a world-weary long stare, almost as though he had sunk deep inside himself and saw no good reason to come climb back out.

And besides, I was interrupting his video-game time. He showed little emotion during the process of fitting him. His left arm was amputated just below the elbow, so that was the arm we’d decided to work with. I had printed a small plastic sleeve to go above the elbow and a longer section to attach to the stump of his arm, and I was working on the metal strings that would attach from the hinge between the two, down to the hand itself.

My handy-dandy Dremel had run out of juice and we couldn’t rig it to take a charge — it was a 110-volt device, and we couldn’t adapt it to the local current — so I was going to have to file the ends of the attachments by hand, a long, slow, painful, incredibly dull process.

Doing dull work in the hot sun is about as tedious as it gets, but Daniel sat and watched, patiently, occasionally chatting with his little brother in Arabic, drifting off to play video games or kick the soccer ball around in the dirt outside the shed.

The only rise I got out of him was when I went to heat some water over a charcoal fire to form the orthoplastic, and on the way back cracked my forehead into the metal overhang of the structure we were using as a printing station, and gave myself a giant cut that would be my insignia for the rest of the trip.

Daniel and his brother thought that was very, very funny. As I said, kids are more the same than they are different.

After a couple of hours, I finally had the hard part done — the hand assembly, with the wires running down from it, so that when you pull the wires, the fingers make a grasping motion toward the palm, and when you release them, they spring back open. Kind of like you’re waving hello.

Our translator went missing, but Daniel and I managed to communicate okay. “Close your eyes,” I told him, and waved my hand over my eyes, and he got the point, and closed them. I swear that a little smile was curling the corner of his lips. I brought the hand in front of him and told him to open his eyes. Then I made it wave at him.

And that tiny smile turned into a great big teenage boy grin, the kind that any father of boys knows and loves and lives for; the kind that anyone seeing a skinny, malnourished, dirty, disheveled, beautiful young man who had lost his arms to a senseless, senseless war would take one look at and say, I am so lucky to be here, in this moment, to witness this tiny bit of joy amid all this sorrow.

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I brought the hand in front of him and told him to open his eyes.

It was Nov. 11, 2013 — exactly four months, to the day, that I had the fateful dinner in Venice Beach that started me on this path. And look where my journey had taken me. This is what I meant when I said that doing things for others is an ultimately selfish act, and that there’s nothing wrong with that. This moment gave me — me — such great, great pleasure.

What gives you pleasure? Your family, your job, your movies, your TV shows? Food, drink, boats, cars, vacations, sailing, skiing,? I’ll give you all of those, and I’ll raise you one armless boy, seeing his new hand wave at him for the first time, and grinning at you so big that his bright white teeth shine like diamonds in the noonday sun. goldbrown2

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Mick Ebeling is an award-winning film, television and commercial producer, philanthropist, entrepreneur and public speaker. Mick is the founder and CEO of Not Impossible Labs.

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