Engineers to the Rescue

April 8, 1999
Engineers donate time and expertise to help those with disabilities.

A third-grader with severe birth defects presented an unusual challenge for teachers; his right leg is half as long as his left, he has no hands or elbows, and no chairs could handle his unique shape and disabilities.

A young girl with paralysis of the legs watches with envy and sadness as her twin sister rides a bicycle.

A steelworker loses both arms in an industrial accident. He likes to work with wood, but cannot operate power tools with his prostheses.

Like thousands of others with disabilities in the U.S., these people had little hope of ever achieving their individual goals. They couldn’t afford custom-built equipment that might solve their individual problems, and there aren’t enough people in the same situations to make it profitable for a large company to devise and market a solution.

Fortunately, Volunteers for Medical Engineering (VME) learned of their plight. VME is a 19-year-old Baltimore organization of engineers, medical professionals, and inventors who donate time and talents to tackle such projects. VME helps gather the resources and comes up with ideas to assist those in need. VME workers are in the habit of inventing solutions when none exist, and their endeavors can take a few hours or a few months. But in any case, it takes dedication and generous hearts, something VME offers in abundance.

Getting started
Engineer John Staehlin founded VME while working at Westinghouse Corp. in 1980. He had organized other engineers to help doctors at a local hospital develop a way of measuring heart-wall stresses back in 1964. But family, education, and career demands forced him to give up volunteer efforts soon after that project ended.

Sixteen years later, after hearing a particularly stirring sermon on using one’s talents, the volunteer bug bit again. He approached the director of rehabilitation medicine at Johns Hopkins University, a center for retraining people with disabilities for new vocations. Staehlin got encouragement there that led him to establish VME.

At first, his family served as staff, but since then membership has grown to 250 volunteers in and around Baltimore and another 200 scattered across the country. Most are engineers, and almost every engineering discipline is represented. Membership also includes medical professionals, metalworkers, carpenters, machinists, drafters, secretaries, and instructors at the grade school, high school and college levels. Many volunteers combine their hobbies with their vocations, bringing valuable insight to the design process. “The spouses of these volunteers also provide tremendous support in every aspect of our business,” says Staehlin.

Engineering students from nearby colleges such as Johns Hopkins, Essex Community College, University of Maryland, and the Naval Academy also contribute valuable talents to VME. Students from the Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering, for example, designed a curved computer keyboard that works with an infrared mouthstick for a VME client. “And several Johns Hopkins seniors are developing a way for people to pump gas at any self-serve station without leaving their vehicles,” notes Staehlin.

Volunteer sign up for any of several reasons. Many are retired and VME lets them stay active in engineering. “The opportunity to apply myself to solving real-world problems is stimulating,” says VME member Warren T. O’Reilly. “I spent 41 years as an electrical engineer and enjoyed every minute. VME lets me continue the fun in retirement.”

Others, such as Phil Atkinson, a 16-year VME worker and Volunteer of the Year for 1998, participate out of charity. “I’ve had a good life and owe much of it to others who gave me my health, education, a positive outlook, and opportunities,” he says. “I feel an obligation to pay that back, to pass along to others some of what has been given to me. And above all, I get the incredible satisfaction of having a visible and positive effect on peoples’ lives. There is no better pay than having someone say ‘You’ve changed my whole life for the better.’”

For many volunteers, VME projects evolve into personal relationships in ways that are more satisfying than those that typify modern business. Like VME engineer Mike Robinson, they discover the kick in helping others. “I enjoy making a person’s life better,” he says. “I also appreciate the instantaneous feedback for a task accomplished. And I like passing on my knowledge to others while learning from them. Every client and volunteer has something to teach each of us.”

Projects and programs
VME’s mission is to “apply technology in the solution of challenges faced by people with disabilities and the elderly.” The organization usually accomplishes this goal through individual projects. Strict management protocols ensure VME leaves clients with a better lifestyle.

“In some projects, the goal is trying to find just the right material for an application,” notes Staehlin. “For example, we had a staff member who needed extremely strong but lightweight crutches. An aerospace volunteer had a friend who worked with graphite composites. This man made a set of crutches for us free of charge and retained the mold in case we need another pair.”

In other projects, volunteers look for the right technology. VME is currently working on an obstacle avoidance system for a wheelchair-bound client with poor vision. “Proposed solutions all involved short-range radar transmitters and receivers, or sonar transducers such as those used on early Polaroid cameras,” explains Staehlin. “We’re now looking for a source of those transducers to make this project viable.”

Typical clients are individuals with a disabling condition and a need, or an institution that serves such people. Prospective clients start the process by making a formal request, after which a VME coordinator visits to nail down the particulars. Teams evaluate the requests and produce a risk assessment. An approval committee determines whether to proceed with individual projects. It also reviews and approves proposed solutions. A professional engineer participates in every evaluation and project. These strict guidelines let VME afford general liability insurance coverage. It carries no professional liability insurance.

“Project reports are consolidated and shared with others,” says Staehlin. “One great strength of our network is how we learn and grow from knowing what each volunteers does. That makes it easier to help other clients with similar challenges.”

VME engineers take advantage of the fact that the FDA exempts from reporting requirements any single custom device made for an individual client or medical/rehabilitation professional. Volunteers that make the same or similar device for a second person risk losing insurance protection. So those sorts of follow-on efforts must be sponsored by the Institutional Review Board of a local hospital or rehabilitation institution.

Besides working on projects for clients, VME annually hosts an Inventor for a Day program. It invites community members to help brainstorm ideas for solving specific problems. VME staff briefs the inventors-for-a-day on intellectual property rights, the patenting process, and other topics of interest. Exhibits and demonstrations of past VME projects show what is possible, and each participant receives a “patent primer” take-home kit before tackling the problems at hand.

In the 1997 program, for example, two teams of inventors each tackled separate wheelchair projects. The 1998 program focused on classroom problems of students with disabilities.

And what ever happened to those three people who had the good luck to find VME. The third grader has a custom-designed motorized chair that fits his body. It lets him move close to or away from the desk, and adjusts up and down to meet the desktop. It also has a handle so he can push it from classroom to classroom.

The young girl now rides a front-wheel-drive bike around the neighborhood with her sister. She pumps the handlebars up and down, much like a manually driven railroad handcar, to propel the bike along.

And the injured steelworker securely attaches woodworking tools to his prostheses using VME-designed brackets. VME even came up with a way for him to put the tools on or take them off without assistance.

Success and searches
Many of the projects tackled by Volunteers for Medical Engineering revolve around making computers accessible to people with disabilities. One of the first efforts was for a bed-ridden client who had limited use of his hands. He operated the keyboard with a mouthstick and had a difficult time reaching keys on the far right and left of standard keyboards. A VME team created a curved keyboard where the radius equaled the length of the mouthstick. Thus the stick’s tip is always equidistant from every key. They also transformed the keys into infrared detectors and made the tip of the mouthstick an IR source energized by a puff on a switch in the mouthpiece.

Another computer success is VME’s Blinkwriter system and Viewkey software. Originally built for a doctor suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, the successful project let him continue writing medical reports. Blinkwriter uses a pair of glasses with an IR-based eyeball tracker, while the software creates a full line cursor that steps down the screen row by row. When the client blinks, the cursor stops on a line of information and then moves word-by-word across the screen. A second blink selects the word. Repeating this process lets the doctor write.

VME engineers have also modified computers so clients can “talk.” In one project, they designed a keyboard with a one-line, 56-character LCD. Pressing the proper keys activates a voice synthesizer that pronounces the words on the LCD.

VME is always busy. The obstacle avoidance system for wheelchairs, for example, is on hold while volunteers track down suitable sonar or radar transducers. Another project in progress will let those in wheelchairs play hockey. One solution is to add a puck trapping and shooting device to the wheelchair. But players with disabilities would prefer a regular hockey stick with some means for trapping the puck. The VME team is now working on a stick that straps to the wheel and can catch and shoot a puck.

Another ongoing project, the subject of last year’s Inventor for a Day program, makes the classroom a little friendlier for children incapable of sitting upright. These kids, called layers, usually have spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, or cerebral palsy. The project’s goal is to design a lift that raises such students to the different heights of desks and tables.

The volunteers brainstormed and came up with two potential solutions. The first uses a pair of low-pressure bellows operated by air. Inflating one or the other raises the head or foot end of a platform. Inflating both raises the entire platform and keeps it level. The second solution consists of winches at the head and foot of the platform to accomplish the same goal. Prototypes are now being built for testing.

New life for used computers
A computer is a great tool for keeping people with disabilities in touch with the world. It lets them surf the Web and maintain contact with colleagues and friends. Specialized peripherals and innovative input devices let them read, write, and communicate despite their situation. To get more computers to people with disabilities, VME refurbishes donated PCs and leases them for a nominal monthly fee ranging from 0 to $35/mo., depending on the client’s ability to pay. Sometimes, VME inventors must devise custom keyboards and peripherals.

VME already has a long list of people waiting for computers and is still receiving more requests from all over the country. But most of VME’s engineers and resources are in Maryland, so the group mainly focuses on metropolitan Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

VME is still looking for computers capable of handling modern software. “We need PCs, 486 or better, with CD ROMs, modems, more memory, and the ability to run Windows at today’s faster clock speeds,” says John Masters, a VME organizer.

Finding the funds
Though VME mainly contributes the engineering and ideas for solving a problem, in many cases, it also builds hardware. VME’s construction funding comes from foundations, corporations and individuals. Several companies and organizations act as benefactors, donating components and services. Baystate Technologies of Marlborough, Mass., for example, recently donated five seats of its Cadkey mechanical CAD software. “Other companies and organizations that have made sizable gifts to VME include Innovation Focus, a product -development consulting firm in Lancaster, Pa., Aberdeen Proving Grounds, and Westinghouse Aerospace,” notes an appreciative Staehlin.

Volunteers working on specific projects often buy needed parts and donate out-of-pocket expenses along with their time and talent. Clients also kick in financial help, if they can.

Although VME allocates only $200 per project for parts, the number of projects and requests keeps Staehlin scrambling for new sources of funding. “I’m now trying to license some of the inventions that have been patented by VME. Hopefully they will generate a continuing source of income to sustain operations indefinitely,” he says. “And the ongoing pro bono efforts of patent lawyers at Finnegan and Henderson, a Washington D.C. firm, have helped immeasurably in this effort.”

To contact VME
Engineers or others interested in setting up a volunteer organization in their area can get an information pack from VME. It includes a volunteer handbook, articles of incorporation, a partnership agreement format, orientation literature, approaches to insurance coverage, project recording and tracking forms, and a suggested project review and approval committee flow.

The VME address is: Volunteers for Medical Engineering Inc., 2301 Argonne Dr., Baltimore, MD 21218, (410) 243-7495, fax: (410) 467-3837, e-mail:

© 2010 Penton Media, Inc.

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