The sweet sound of piano music engulfed the Burke family’s Shawnee home.
In their family room one recent afternoon, 14-year-old Heidi Burke sat atop a blue velvet ottoman pulled up to the upright piano.
Heidi, 14, was born without the lower part of her arms or legs — a “congenital quadrilateral amputee.” Without hands, except for a tiny fleshy digit she calls her thumb, she learned to play piano at age 8.
Her parents and her piano teacher were amazed.
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“She would take runs and chord progressions right up the piano with both hands and she didn’t have fingers, and it sounded good and I was blown away,” said Connie Sorter, who has taught piano in Johnson County for decades. “She’s very talented.”
And yet, until recently, something was missing from the music. Heidi could not push the piano’s pedals, which can transform individual notes into smoother, richer harmonies.
It took a team of engineering students from the University of Kansas to custom design just the technology Heidi needed.
She calls it her pedal pusher. Strapped to her right thigh when she plays, it looks like an upside-down selfie stick.
“The first time I played pressing the piano pedal, I was like whoa, the sound was majestic,” Heidi said. “Now I can make it sound like I’m playing all the notes.”
It was one of her sisters, an accomplished pianist, who first taught her to play. “I wanted to be like my sisters,” Heidi said. Eventually she started private lessons.
Sorter didn’t know what to expect when Heidi came to her. “She was a very little girl then,” Sorter recalled. “I knew she could play one note with each hand, the way I would teach any student.”
“I am a praying piano teacher and probably Heidi took a little extra prayer time, but she gave me more than I ever thought I would see.”
Learning to play piano, Heidi said, “was just a natural thing.“ Like the many other things she did as a child — climb a tree, skip, tumble — she just did it, never thinking others may have thought those were impossible.
But though she would play piano recitals never making a mistake, Heidi had grown frustrated, wanting to play fuller music using the pedals. Her dad put together a PVC pipe contraption, but it continued to fail. So two years ago, her mother, Dawn Burke, started calling around to university engineering departments asking if anyone could help.
Only KU Engineering’s Biomechanical Rehabilitation Engineering Advancement in Kansas Program — or BREAK — responded. The program for student-led design has a six-year grant from the National Science Foundation, which provides customized design services to people with disabilities.
But the Burke challenge “was a little bit smaller scope than most of our other projects,” said Ken Fischer, a mechanical and bioengineering professor at KU. So he asked students from the university’s Biomedical Engineering Society to take up the task.
“That is why I studied engineering, to help people who have medical challenges,” said Kelsey Ling, who was president of the society and is now a graduate working in an Overland Park research lab.
First, the KU team developed two prototypes with a 3D printer. Heidi picked the one that worked best. The actual pedal pusher is made of metal and a strap, decorated with a Jayhawk, that fits around Heidi’s thigh. The base of the pusher is coated with rubber so it doesn’t slip on the pedal. Heidi works her leg up and down, counting as she plays. The pusher also was made adjustable to grow with Heidi.
“They actually thought of everything,” her mother said.
Fischer delivered the finished product, wrapped in a big red bow, right to the Burkes’ front door.
Without fingers, Heidi said, she could not play chords, so she played a modified version of every tune. But now, with her pusher, “holding the pedal down longer makes it sound like I’m playing a chord,” Heidi said.
Ling says the first time she heard Heidi use the pedal, “it was a pretty profound moment.” She stood listening to the pedal turn “a series of notes into a true song. It kind of made those long nights in the library and all those tough classes worth it.”
The Burke family is used to being creative and helping Heidi find her way past obstacles. In addition to the piano, she plays the trumpet and is a member of the Midland Adventist Academy gymnastics and cheering squad, where she’s doing cartwheels and making human pyramids, taking turns tossing squad mates into the air.
“I don’t think she holds back on anything,” said Jonathan Borne, the school’s gymnastic coach. “If she has an interest in anything she is going to at least try it.”
“She does just about anything she wants,” her mom said.
Several years ago, Heidi tried prosthetic legs. But since she doesn’t have knees, the prosthetic made walking pretty hard for her.
“Plus, the only thing she could do with a prosthetic was walk,” her mom said. “She couldn’t climb or run or sit.”
From Heidi’s perspective, having artificial legs was not worth what she would have to give up. “The only thing the prosthetic did was make me taller, but I couldn’t move,” she said.
Instead, Heidi wears custom shoes made of cloth, leather and spongy inner sole cut from flip-flops by a friend of the family. The shoes fit over her legs to “protect my skin from the rest of the world,” Heidi said, flashing a broad smile and showing off her mouth full of braces.
The shoes, like the pedal pusher, are just Heidi’s way of doing her thing, her way.
Figuring it all out, Heidi said, is “so worth it,” because “playing my favorite songs is so relaxing. I love piano music. I enjoy playing,” she said before launching into Brian Crain’s “Butterfly Waltz.”
“Here’s this huge instrument and I’m telling it what to do, and there is this love, this feeling of power.”