Teen inventor deems violin a healing instrument

| Bridget Ryder for The Catholic Spirit | January 28, 2015 | 0 Comments
Sarah Betts, a freshman at Convent of the Visitation School in Mendota Heights, used her experience as a violin player to invent a device that helps ease the symptoms of arthritis, which she has herself.  Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Sarah Betts, a freshman at Convent of the Visitation School in Mendota Heights, used her experience as a violin player to invent a device that helps ease the symptoms of arthritis, which she has herself. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

In between ski racing, violin practice, school and being an altar server, Sarah Betts invented a device that has already improved the lives of people who suffer from arthritis.

The 14-year-old freshman at Convent of the Visitation School in Mendota Heights now has a patent pending for the ViEx, a therapeutic hand exercise device.

“It has a wooden base and sits flat on a table with four real violin strings elevated off the base. It exercises specific joints affected by arthritis,” Betts explained of her invention, named for the violin and exercise. Betts is a parishioner at Our Lady of Grace in Edina.

Doctors at Twin Cities Orthopedics and the University of Minnesota are already using ViEx with their patients.

Betts’ own experience inspired her invention.

When she was 9 years old, her fingers, toes and ankles became so swollen that she could hardly walk down the stairs, fasten buttons or write. But the diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis did not stop her from playing the violin, which she had done since she was 3. At age 12, she noticed that her left hand — the hand that works the violin strings — was much less swollen and painful than the right hand she used for bowing. Betts started theorizing that the motion her left hand made playing the violin strings minimized arthritic symptoms. Betts also saw her 90-year-old grandparents struggling with everyday activities because of the pain in their joints.

“I just wanted to find a way to help people struggling with arthritis,” she said. “I understand people who are going through the same types of problems, and I know that some people are going through it much worse than I was.”

Betts also has a scientific mind.

“When I was really little I loved to mix things together and make ‘little potions,’ ” she said.

Later, she built a maze in her basement to test the effects of fish oil on the myelin of rats. This experiment and the ViEx won several first-place awards at the Minnesota State Science Fair. She has also placed in the top 5 percent at a national science fair.

From her curiosity and desire to help others, Betts invented the ViEx.

She started doing research and found that science backed her exercise theory. Then, she launched into creating a prototype others could use to obtain the same benefits. From her drawings, she put together wood, metal and donated violin strings in a process of trial and error.

“Our entire kitchen was kind of transformed into this work place,” she said.

Betts also worked out a precise exercise routine for the device to see if it would work.

“I could have given it to a few people, but I wouldn’t have any proof that it worked.

I wanted to see if it was scientifically valid,” Betts said of why she enlisted participants for a formal study.

At the end of her study, she found that 95 percent of patients had improved hand function and grip strength, and 70 percent of patients had reduced joint pain.

Dr. Thomas Raih of Twin Cities Orthopedics and fellow parishioner at Our Lady of Grace was one doctor who reviewed Betts’ study and device.

He called the ViEx “original and practical.”

“Her understanding of the entire process has reflected an ability well beyond her age,” he wrote. “Her research is scientifically sound and will be a valuable addition to the medical literature for the treatment of osteoarthritic and rheumatoid hand problems.”

To persevere through making multiple devices for the study, finding participants and completing the 100-page patent application, Betts relied on her
faith.

“When I was trying to find participants for the study, a couple of people had to bow out because they developed dementia or similar things, so it was out of my control, and I just prayed and relied on the faith that I had been taught in school and my family,” Betts said.

Then a couple of people called back and said they had changed their minds.

“God worked through them,” she said.

Most of all, her faith and Catholic education has helped her keep her eyes on the goal.

“When I picture the end result with this device, it’s giving joy to other people, and my Catholic faith has taught me what it means to help other people,” said Betts, who volunteers at local food shelves and nursing homes.

She knows that God has an intention for her life, she said, and persevering with the ViEx is working his plans for her future. Getting her patent approved will take another three to five years, but once patented, Betts wants it to be as affordable as possible. It costs about $3 to make and she is looking into ways to make it for as little as $1. Betts especially has people like her grandparents in mind.

“I feel like the elderly in our society are forgotten about, and I really wanted to help them because they still have a lot of life,” Betts said.

After high school, Betts wants to attend a Catholic college and become a neurosurgeon. But until then, she remains focused on how she can help others now.

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