St. Ambrose professor's technology helps disabled

By EMILY CHRISTENSEN

WATERLOO, Iowa (AP) — One person's trash is another's treasure.

The old saying is most commonly used when describing a fun thrift store find or a roadside freebie. For Dylan Huntbach, one man's trash is his lifeline to independence.

Huntbach, 20, was paralyzed from the neck down when he dove from the shore and struck the bottom of the Cedar River in early July. He was airlifted to University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and just recently returned to the Cedar Valley for intensive rehabilitation at Covenant Medical Center.

It was there that Huntbach met Katie Jo Wedeking, an occupational therapist and St. Ambrose University graduate. At St. Ambrose, Wedeking worked closely with Professor Jon Turnquist, an assistive technology professional.

At Covenant, she took that knowledge about assistive technology and put it to work for Huntbach.

Wedeking recently installed what is known as an environmental control unit in Huntbach's rehab room. The unit allows Huntbach to turn on his radio and his television, and to control the volume and channels. He can turn a lamp and a fan off and on and call his nurses at their station. He can even call his friends on the phone.

And when he leaves the hospital in just a few short weeks, Wedeking will install a similar system in his home at no cost to the family.

"This is my demonstration model, but I didn't want Dylan to have to wait," Wedeking said.

Similar units purchased through assistive technology companies would cost the family between $7,000 and $20,000. Huntbach said he used one of those units in Iowa City.

"It means more independence. I don't have to rely on someone to turn my TV or my radio on. I can just do it in the night or whenever," he said.

Huntbach's parents, Kim and Dave, said the device also has put their minds at ease.

"When he got his voice he could yell, but before he got his voice he could turn his TV up or his radio up and they would hear that," Dave Huntbach said.

Dylan uses a simple sip and puff switch to activate the computer program and make his choices. Others can activate the program using a tilt of their head, the tap of a finger, the pressure of their wrist, the flick of their big toe or even the blink of their eye.

"It is truly individualized for each person's ability and needs," Wedeking said.

Turnquist uses discarded computers, flatscreen monitors and other electronics to build the device for a fraction of the cost of the commercial options. The university covers the costs he does incur.

The only difference in the programs is the size of the unit. Commercial units are full computers housed inside small boxes that can attach to a chair or bed. People using Turnquist's program must have space for the computer in the room where they want the control.

Glen Henry, the former University of Northern Iowa swim coach who has been paralyzed from the chest down for more than eight years, said he had never heard of an ECU until Wedeking mentioned it during a therapy session. Now, he can't imagine life without it.

"Those are all outstanding assets I didn't possess prior to meeting up with Katie Jo," Henry said. "What it means to me is I have a lot more freedom to do some of the things I could not do before without assistance. I had to ask somebody to turn it on. Turn it off. Turn it up. Turn it down. Whistle and yell through the window for my wife on the other side of the house. I've explored and discovered there is some independence that has really come about because of this."

His wife, Karen, called the ECU "monumental" for the couple.

Turnquist, who also has a background in computer programming, started developing the program for the ECUs more than a decade ago in part because he was encountering patients he just couldn't help as an occupational therapist. His units, which are usually powered by computers up to a decade old, are now in hospitals and homes across the Midwest and even the world.

"All of these assistive technologies mean independence for the individual and also a decreased effort for the caregiver. Now they can get a break, too," Turnquist said. "Then, the patient starts feeling a lot better, not so helpless and hopeless."

And Huntbach is ready to start testing out some of that new assistive and adaptive technology. Next on his list of activities to tackle: the Xbox. The Microsoft Kinect's voice-activated feature already allows him to control his own movie selection, but he's got his sights set on playing video games again.

"That would be an example of the extremes you can take things with assistive technology and the things we have the capability of doing with adaptations," Wedeking said. "The things I have seen Jon Turnquist do with assistive technology is unbelievable. That he could potentially open up an Xbox remote and wire the connectors to adaptor remotes so that someone would be able to manipulate it to play their Xbox games, there is not a doubt in my mind that he can figure it out or direct one of his students to figure it out."

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Information from: Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, http://www.wcfcourier.com

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