Manufacturing better quality of life
Assistive Technology helps patients regain a measure of independence
BY MIKE DALY
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Monday, January 18, 2016
Don’t let his greasy hands fool you. Dennis Stanley is a health-care worker.
He spends his time in a machine shop, as opposed to an operating room.
Stanley works as a Rehabilitation Mechanical Specialist with the Assistive Technology Products and Services department at Health Sciences Centre Winnipeg. Along with his co-workers, he designs and builds custom solutions for adult patients who have experienced a loss of mobility.
“I’m a machinist by training,” he says. “In a previous job, I worked at Bristol Aerospace making jet parts. Now, I’m in health care. I’ll have been here 27 years this spring, and my job is so rewarding that I’ve never applied for another position. And likely never will.”
When asked what makes the job so satisfying, Stanley cited an example of how, with some creative use of his mechanical abilities, he was able to assist a man with Parkinson’s disease, a chronic and progressive movement disorder.
The man was subject to “freezing” (also called motor block), a symptom of Parkinson’s disease that results in a sudden inability to start or continue movements such as walking or writing. Every now and then while walking in his home, the man would involuntarily freeze in his tracks, sometimes for several minutes at a time.
“When I arrived, I saw that the man had placed VCR tapes on the floor as improvised barriers that tricked his brain into getting him moving again. Many tapes were required, because he was never sure exactly where a freezing episode would take place. My job was to come up with something less hazardous and more practical.”
Stanley’s solution? A “Parkinson’s cane”: a custom-made adaptation to a standard cane that features a spring-loaded trigger that drops a metal flange onto the floor.
Dennis Stanley with a “Parkinson’s cane”.
Like the VCR tapes, the flange is perceived by the man’s brain as a barrier to overcome, effectively getting him back in motion. But unlike the tapes, the cane doesn’t cause clutter or a tripping hazard.
“We initially installed a device on the cane that projected a beam of light on the floor, but for whatever reason, it wasn’t effective. So we moved to the flange concept. Now, we make them a half dozen at a time, whenever we have a patient who needs help with freezing.”
It’s that kind of ingenuity for which Assistive Technology has earned a well-deserved reputation for service. The department is divided into five working groups:
- The mechanical group, comprised of former machinists like Stanley, who modify or design assistive devices from scratch
- Electronics, which builds or modify electronic devices for easier use (e.g. nurse call switches)
- A computer access specialization area
- Alternative controls, which develops specialized driving controls for wheelchairs
- An automotive group that modifies vehicles for patients with limited mobility or other physical barriers to driving
“There are four of us in the mechanical group, each with a background as machinists,” Stanley says. “But a lot of what we do here you have to learn on the job. Our mandate is that if a suitable product is already available from a commercial supplier, we won’t build it. However, if necessary we can modify commercial products or create a custom solution as a last resort. So you need a good mechanical background and a flair for design.”
To illustrate his point, Stanley points to a baby crib, one of several he and his co-workers have customized over the years.
“For me, cribs stand out as one of most rewarding projects we work on,” he says. “One of the first things you purchase as an expectant mother is a crib. But if you are in a wheelchair, there is no way you can safely get your baby in and out of a standard crib. These days, the sides of a crib don’t lower, and there’s not enough room under the crib to allow your wheelchair sufficient access. So we raise the crib and add some glass doors that allow the mother to safely access her child. That’s when you see a big smile on her face.”
Stanley and his associates have also adapted wheelchairs with brackets that attach to a stroller, allowing the mother to walk her child. But not all projects are that sophisticated.
“Sometimes, we’ll work on something as simple as mounting a ventilator to the back of a wheelchair. It’s not particularly challenging from a technical perspective, but it helps a patient get their mobility back. We’ll also make simple modifications to things like toothbrushes, eating utensils and hair brushes that allow patients to meet some of their own basic needs. To us, these are little things, but for the patients, they make a huge difference in terms of quality of life and independence.”
So while Stanley admits that tools such as lathes, grinders, band saws, and welding equipment aren’t typically what people think of when health care comes to mind, he is proud of the role they play in helping people with their medical needs.
“When we can make a device that helps someone overcome a physical limitation, it puts a smile on our faces. It’s rewarding, and as a result, the staff turnover here is very low. When I started, all of the people I worked with had 30 or more years of service. In fact, I was the new kid on the block for 22 years. Now I’m the guy with the most experience, but people who get a job here leave work each day with a real sense of having accomplished something important. For us and the patients we serve, what we do can be such a life-changing thing.”