May 11, 2017

Rory Cooper: The Man Behind the Technology

Rory Cooper couldn’t have known what to expect as he and his team from the Human Engineering Research Laboratories at the University of Pittsburgh prepared to test their state-of-the-art power chair at October’s inaugural Cybathlon in Kloten, Switzerland.
The Cybathlon was conceived as a chance for the world’s leading assistive technology researchers to show off their latest and greatest innovations in several different events: a virtual race using brain control interface, a bicycle race using FES, obstacle courses for people with arm and leg prostheses, an obstacle course for robotic exoskeletons, and the event Cooper was competing in, an extreme obstacle course for power wheelchairs.
That might sound like fun to someone like Cooper, HERL’s founder and director and one of the preeminent researchers and engineers when it comes to assistive technology, but no one knew if people would fill up the hockey arena where the competition was being held — or if the general public even cared.
Photo courtesy of University of Pittsburgh
When Cooper strapped on his helmet and rolled into the arena, the response caught him off guard. “The size of the turnout was amazing,” he recalls. Not only was the arena mostly filled with raucous fans, but a large media contingent was on hand to broadcast the event live across Europe and the internet. “I’ve competed in a lot of athletic competitions — I was a Paralympian in 1988 and I’ve been a coach a number of times — but rolling out there, it felt almost like I was a gladiator.”
In many ways, Cooper is a gladiator for those who rely on assistive technology. Ever since he was paralyzed in 1980, Cooper has devoted himself to pushing assistive technology forward by inventing and improving the products people with disabilities rely on and fighting to raise the public’s awareness of their needs. If you use a wheelchair or any other sort of assistive technology, the chances are extremely high that he has had some direct or indirect influence on its design.
With a list of awards, accomplishments and honors almost as long as the list of patents he has secured, Cooper didn’t need the adulation of the Cybathlon crowd, but its significance was not lost on him. “Hopefully the enthusiasm that was there will drive more people to study science and engineering and help continue the progress that we’ve made,” he says. “If I want anything, I want to grow the positive impact that we can have on people with disabilities.”

Building the Wheelchair Capital

Cooper’s quest to elevate assistive technology began July 23, 1980, when he was paralyzed in a biking accident while stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army. He eventually made it home to California where he completed his rehab and married the German woman he had fallen in love with. As he studied electrical engineering at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, he grew increasingly aware of the obstacles facing people with disabilities and his knack for solving them. He was particularly interested in the repetitive stress injuries many people suffered from pushing wheelchairs. He earned his bachelor’s, master’s and got a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering. He completed a fellowship in rehabilitation engineering and science and then taught at California State University in Sacramento. In 1990 he was appointed director of the school’s Human Engineering Laboratory and coordinator of the Rehabilitation Engineering Program. The University of Pittsburgh hired him away in 1994 and soon after he founded HERL.
“It started in my living room and dining room at home with me and two graduate students. My wife kicked us out and the VA gave us an old locker room,” he says. “Literally one of my students got an award last week, and he mentioned that there was a sign over his desk that said  ‘Please flush after using.’ I reminded him that my office was the towel cage.”
Even Cooper has trouble reconciling those humble beginnings with the program’s current setup. Six years ago HERL moved into a custom-built space in a swanky Pittsburgh research park alongside Google, Ford and other industry giants. The space is big enough to accommodate the 70 to 100 students, faculty and interns that regularly pass through, and it holds all the design and manufacturing equipment for researchers to see their projects through from inception to completion.
Rory Cooper pilots the MEBot in the 2016 Cybathlon.
Rory Cooper pilots the MEBot in the 2016 Cybathlon. Photo courtesy of HERL.

“It is kind of unique in that everything’s housed at one place,” says Jonathan Duvall, a C6 quad completing his Ph.D. at HERL. “You can design something using 3-D CAD software and as soon as you’re done designing it, you go down to the basement to the machine shop and actually build it yourself. We don’t outsource any of our production. We have all the machines there to do it ourselves. So we go from concept and idea to prototyping to testing in the field — and even doing human subject testing to see how people feel about the technology that we develop and how effective it is.”
That unique setup, combined with a dedicated team of researchers and medical professionals, has helped make HERL into the “wheelchair capital” for researchers, according to Jonathan Pearlman, the associate director for product innovation and translation. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a shop like we have,” he says. “Even our engineering schools here at Pitt — their jaws just drop when they see the resources we have. … Our setup helps create the kinds of synergies that happen less frequently elsewhere.”
The 70 or so projects going on at any one time run the gamut. Beyond wheelchairs and orthoses, you might catch a glimpse of robots preparing meals, researchers testing home environmental control units or something else you’ve never seen before.
“You really never know what’s going to be talked about the next day,” says Brandon Daveler, a C4-5 quad who completed his master’s at HERL and is now working on his Ph.D.
Brandon Daveler and Jonathan Duvall are both grad students at HERL
Brandon Daveler and Jonathan Duvall are both grad students at HERL. Photo by Lawrence Roffee Photography.

Post Polio Litaff, Association A.C _APPLAC Mexico

May 6, 2017

Polio survivor group talks of legacy and a new battle

At six-years-old, Bobby Doherty from Belfast wasn't playing or riding his bike - he was lying entombed in plaster from head-to-foot in Musgrave Park Hospital after contracting polio. 
More than half a century after the infection first struck, he and a group of fellow polio survivors still meet up each week in the Short Strand Recreation Centre. 
They play games, reminisce over a cup of tea and support each other in coping with the effects of a disease, which many people think doesn't exist anymore. 
Now in his 70s, Mr Doherty still vividly recalls falling ill. 

Bobby Doherty
Image captionMr Doherty still uses leg braces to get about

"It was September 1949, a lovely sunny Friday evening and I remember my father taking me to the GP but when we got there the surgery was closed," he said. 
"The doctor turned up at my house on Monday morning, tickled my left foot and said 'I'll be back in an hour with an ambulance or a consultant.'
"An hour later I was in an ambulance heading to the Purdysburn Fever Hospital."

'Fear of wasps'

Mr Doherty was to remain in hospital for more than a year with the serious viral infection, which causes muscles to shrink, paralysis and in some cases, death. 
When he was discharged, polio had left a permanent mark. He was paralysed in both legs and was fitted with leg braces, known then as calipers, which he still uses to get about. 
Another long-standing member of the NI Polio Fellowship is Eddie McCrory, who contracted the disease in 1957, aged five, during its largest outbreak in Northern Ireland. 

Eddie McCrory
Image captionMr McCrory was completely paralysed at first

For him too, the memories are sharp. 
"My father said I would only be in hospital for the night - and I remember falling out with him when I had to stay much longer than that," he said.
"I was in an isolation ward with three others, and my mother and father would come to the window and look in. She would cry and run away. 
"I was completely paralysed at first and I remember a wasp coming into the ward. The other children could cover themselves with their sheets but I couldn't. 
"It was terrible and I've had a fear of wasps ever since."
Mr McCrory, who is originally from Belfast's Short Strand but now lives in Carryduff, was left with a severe curvature of the spine. 

A young Eddie McCrory

Polio is now all but eradicated in the UK thanks to a highly-effective vaccine introduced in the 1960s. 
Polio does still exist worldwide, although polio cases have decreased by more than 99% since 1988, from an estimated more than 350,000 cases to 74 reported cases in 2015. 
Only two countries in the world have never stopped transmission of polio - Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Polio Fellowship Group meeting
Image captionThe NI Polio Fellowship playing some sport

But for the friends who still gather in east Belfast, the legacy of the disease lives on, not only in their disabilities but in a new battle with what's known as post-polio syndrome. 
Mr McCrory explains that while polio was once considered a static disease, it is now thought fresh symptoms can emerge up to 60 years later. 
"I have a diagnosis of post-polio syndrome - I can feel tired, really fatigued and then there are aches," he said.
"Not awful aches but in the parts where I didn't ever have polio. I'm very sensitive to cold. My feet and legs are like blocks of ice because the body doesn't respond quickly enough to changes in body temperature."

'Contented life'

He says there's a lack of awareness of the condition - not helped by the fact many polio experts are retired or deceased.
"Young doctors would have no idea," he said. "When I go to see the neurologist and he sends me to the physiotherapist, she'll often bring in her students and say - this is someone who had polio."
Dr Ultan Power, a molecular virology specialist from Queen's University Belfast, says post-polio syndrome is a neurological disease evident in people who had polio.

Dr Ultan Power
Image captionDr Ultan Power says no treatments are currently available for post-polio syndrome

"I've asked a few of my colleagues had they heard about post-polio syndrome and they all said no," he said. 
"My understanding is it is not well-known because of the virtual eradication of polio in society."
There are no treatments available but some clinical trials are ongoing, he added.
"One involves using antibodies from people who have the polio virus, which is pretty much everybody as we are all vaccinated," he said.
"They take them from healthy individuals and transfuse them into people who are suffering from post-polio syndrome. 
"The hope is that it will have an impact on the residual virus, help eliminate it and improve function for individuals - i.e. their ability to walk - and live a generally contented life."

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