When 18-year-old Dennis Dugger emerged from a coma last January, he could neither walk nor talk. The only motion his paralyzed body permitted was blinking his eyes--once for yes, twice for no.
Watching the teen-ager struggle to communicate after injuries incurred in a motorcycle accident and 3 1/2 months spent in a coma inspired hospital administrator Steve Shipley to invention.
If Dugger could answer yes-and-no questions by blinking, thought Shipley, perhaps he could convey complete ideas and sentences, maybe even hold a conversation by way of his eyes.
The catch was finding the technology that could be adapted to Dugger’s limited mode of communication.
“He had severe injury to the brain and being intubated for so long caused scar tissue in his throat,” said Donna Dugger of Petaluma, the teen-ager’s mother, explaining why her son was incapable of movement and speech.
An Active Mind
Doctors at the Petaluma rehabilitative hospital who were developing a treatment plan for the paralyzed patient assured everyone that Dugger had an active mind and said that if he could better communicate with them, therapy aiding his recovery could move along smoothly and rapidly.
So Shipley, 32, took it upon himself to figure out new functions for the lights and bleeps that so often accompany hospital care.
“Morse code was the answer,” he said. “I knew he could learn that and communicate with his eyes.”
The soft-spoken hospital administrator shies away from talk about his inventiveness and tends to focus instead on how someone like Dugger fought for life or how he himself rose from central supply to the hospital’s top administrative job.
“I was involved in science fairs as a kid. I made a static electricity generator that won second place in grammar school and I made an electronic gun that won a gold medal and a blue ribbon in sixth grade,” Shipley recalled.
“The electronic gun worked on a solar cell and made a tone, you know the sound,” he said, imitating an electronic beep. “These were the same principles that made me think twice about Dennis.”
Shipley consulted his father, a ham radio operator and electronics buff. Together they developed a small electronic box not much larger than a pack of cigarettes connected by wire to a small infrared light sensor capable of transmitting the blink of an eye into an electronic tone. The wire and sensor were then mounted to Dugger’s glasses “to measure reflected light off the patient’s eyelid.”
“The next step was to teach Dennis Morse code,” said Shipley.
He hung a chart of the code’s dots and dashes and their corresponding letters and numbers next to the patient’s bed.
“Dot, dash for A. Dash, dot, dot, dot for B and so on,” Shipley explained.
Blinked Out His Words
In two days, much to the surprise of the hospital staff, Dugger had memorized the chart and was eager to communicate. Dugger spoke to his family and doctors by spelling words with the blink of an eye.
“This made it possible for everybody to communicate with him, but we had to have ham operators come in because he was sending us messages faster than we could decode them,” Shipley said. “Morse code sped up his recovery because he was able to let us know how he was feeling.
“In fact, he’s a lot further along than he would have been had we not done this.”
Dugger, who has since been released from the hospital and is attending special classes to complete his high school diploma, has no memory of his time at the rehabilitation center or of learning and using Morse code, his mother said.
“His voice is just above a whisper now but he’s getting his voice back,” she said. “He had laser surgery on his voice box so he’s coming along. He doesn’t have much use of his right arm and leg. But he’s walking on crutches. He’s really doing good.”
Shipley has patented the device, which he calls Opticom for optical communication, and envisions another model “that can be interfaced with a computer that will print out in words.”
He also talks of developing a version of the machine that can be connected to a computer with an electronic voice synthesizer that can decode eye blinks into spoken words with the idea of other paralyzed patients or stroke victims benefiting.
But in the meantime, the hospital administrator is not thinking much about promoting or selling his invention, of which there are only two prototypes.
“I really don’t care to do that,” he says.
“But watching someone like Dennis respond so well helps us all appreciate what we can really accomplish.”
United Press International