DURHAM -- Criticized by feminists in years past for her unrealistic anatomy, Barbie's body parts are just right for a Duke University Medical Center worker who makes prosthetics for amputees.
Jane Bahor uses plastic knee joints in Barbie's legs for knuckles in prosthetic fingers. She got the idea three years ago after working with a patient who also was an engineering student at N.C. State University.
Mattel, which makes the popular fashion doll, was so intrigued by the idea she's sent Bahor a free bag of joints.
"It's working out well for several patients," said Bahor, an anaplastologist, whose colleagues around the country are also testing the idea. "A lot of us have played around with the Barbie joint."
Bahor and the patient, Jennifer Jordan, thought Barbie's easy-to-bend knees could make Jordan's prosthetic finger more realistic and useful. Jordan brought in some of her old dolls. Bahor took them apart to find a "simple little ratchet joint" that fit quite nicely inside a flexible foam digit.
When Bahor began experimenting with Barbie as a donor, she collected old dolls and amputated their legs to remove the knee joints. Later, she decided to preserve the dolls by cutting open the legs, taking out the knee joints, then closing the legs and giving them back to children.
"A 3-year-old could care less if the doll has a suture line down the back of the leg," she said.
But operating on each doll took time.
Last fall, when Bahor thought the idea was really going to work, she called Mattel and asked to buy some knee joints. Mattel responded with the free parts.
"Everybody here is really excited that Barbie not only brings joy to little girls but also can help adults who have had accidents," said Lisa McKendall, a Mattel spokeswoman in California.
Bahor has used Barbie's knee in two types of prostheses. In some patients, she installed the joint in a single prosthetic digit that attaches by suction to the remaining portion of the finger. Other patients with more extensive damage wear rubber gloves. Bahor inserts the doll joints in flexible foam fingers that fit inside the gloves.
The fake fingers bend the same way Barbie's leg does. Users can bend the joint with their other hand, as if cracking the knuckle. Just like Barbie's legs, the fingers stay bent until the owner straightens them again.
Being able to bend prosthetic fingers makes it easier for an amputee to hold a pen, pick up a cup, or grip a steering wheel.
"Just a simple thing like that is an enhancement," Bahor said.