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Engineer Solves Biggest Problem of His Life

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ruben Medrano always has been a problem solver.

When he immigrated to Los Angeles from his native Sonora, Mexico, he did not have enough money to go to USC. But he managed to win a full-tuition scholarship.

Later, when a computer glitch would interrupt his electrical engineering design work at Xerox Electronics Systems Development in El Segundo, he would patiently poke away at the problem until it came out right.

But when Medrano, 30, broke his spine in a bus accident nearly three years ago, his employers thought it would take him at least four years to return to work, if he returned at all.

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Even Medrano had his doubts at the outset about whether he would ever earn a living again. Completely paralyzed from the neck down after the March 26, 1988, bus accident, Medrano admits that he at first thought his life had been destroyed.

“I could not even move my arms, and no one could say whether I ever would,” he said during an interview in his El Segundo office. “I thought I’d never be able to move again, much less work.”

Battling back from despair, Medrano surprised even himself by slowly regaining some movement in his arms and learning to operate a computer with pencils strapped to his hands. In less than two years, he returned to the office.

Last month, the state Department of Rehabilitation helped the Montebello resident celebrate the first anniversary of his return to work by naming him their Client of the Year.

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For those who know Medrano, his rapid adjustment to quadriplegia and resumption of his working life seems only natural.

“He has always been very feisty and very self-motivated,” said Rich Knauss, Medrano’s supervisor at the time of the accident. “When I found out the extent of his injury, I figured the earliest he could come back would be four years. I should have known better. . . . When I saw how hard he was pushing himself and everyone else to get him back to work, I knew that Ruben was up to par.”

Initially, a Department of Rehabilitation counselor who visited him shortly after he was injured had her doubts about Medrano’s future.

“Here he was talking about wanting to work, but his physical situation was so severe I couldn’t help but think that we were being a little bit premature,” said Debra Tanaka, who worked with Medrano for nearly two years. “How can you think about work when the concept of going home is still chaotic?

“But Ruben seemed to leap over each problem and focus right into going to work. He was a real powerhouse person who just constantly focused on: ‘OK, what’s the next step? What do I need to do now?’ ”

After seven months in three hospitals, Medrano began to develop some ability to move his arms. Thrilled with that progress, he learned to operate a motorized wheelchair, invented ways to use his home computer, and adjusted to using special gripping and pointing devices to turn pages, move objects and write.

Xerox colleagues brought him technical information to keep him up to date on a long-term project he had been working on. The company loaned him a special keyboard, hooked him in to Xerox’s electronic mail system and helped create a home office similar to one they were building for him at work so he could practice using the new equipment.

Tanaka discovered that she would occasionally have to get Medrano to slow down to allow his body time to adjust to everything he wanted to do.

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“A lot of times I’m the one who’s having to do the pushing to get people ready,” she said. “But nothing could happen fast enough for Ruben. I wanted him to have time at home to make the adjustment, and he was ready so much faster than I thought he would be.

“You can see with that kind of a personality how important it was not to let everything he has to offer go to waste.”

Xerox officials were as eager to have Medrano back at the office as he was to be there.

“He is a very good problem solver who needs very little management interaction,” Knauss said. “Once he’s assigned to a problem, he has the capabilities to go out and solve it. If he gets in trouble, he’ll come back to management, but that’s very few times.

“He’s a rare breed. He’s got qualities you’d like to see in all people, but you don’t. He is a rare role model.”

Medrano clearly enjoys being back on the job. During one recent workday, he moved easily around his compact office, punching up information on a computer and twirling a special Lazy Susan tray built into the middle of his desk to bring one book or another within view.

Later, he rolled quickly down the corridors to a nearby laboratory, where he is supervising another engineer’s work on a prototype central processing unit for one of Xerox’s newest machines. Something was not working right inside the unit.

“It makes no sense right now to me why it’s not working,” Medrano said calmly. “But I’ll figure it out. It’s just another little problem to get around.”

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