Making life easier for the disabled Change of style Trained to design the devices of war, a group of Westinghouse engineers is now building solutions for the disabled.

January 04, 1996|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

Some things even money can't buy. So the Volunteers in Medical Engineering will make them.

The brains behind F-16 radar, undersea sonar and American torpedoes, these working and retired Westinghouse Electronics engineers devote their spare time to building unique devices that enable the disabled.

They motorized a loom for Carole Baylus, a commercial weaver beset with arthritis, so she could continue to earn money. A one-of-a-kind rig, the original maple frame is paired with a little black box that holds a motor connected to a computer.

"My loom looks like it came from cyberspace and the Industrial Revolution," said Ms. Baylus of Owings Mills, joking about the switch that looks like something on a World War II bomber. After she dresses the loom by hand, the switch activates the motor to do the repetitive work she can't manage. Started in Baltimore in 1981 by Westinghouse engineer and inventor John Staehlin, the organization has 75 engineers who work directly with disabled clients to design solutions to their problems.

Another 206 engineers help design one part or another, attending meetings to brainstorm or give a final nod to a device before a project passes muster. Mr. Staehlin, now retired, said that from day one, colleagues have been eager to donate time and money to support the agency, and he never has to turn down a project unless the requested item is available commercially.

After a career of designing the devices of war, these engineers have devoted themselves to adapting tools for living.

Sometimes they're simple, but they make a big difference, such as a device designed for a quadriplegic who had to sleep with the TV on all night because he couldn't work the remote control.

"I came up with a very simple device that let him change channels and turn the TV on and off," said Phil Atkinson, a retired Westinghouse engineer.

"He said, 'You've changed my whole life.' You can't get better paid than that. There are very few jobs you can get that kind of satisfaction from."

Later, Mr. Atkinson worked with Johns Hopkins engineering students to design another device for the man -- a "puff switch" so he could operate his computer keyboard by blowing on the keys.

This month, he finished a chair for Jacob Halberstam, 7, a Hampstead second-grader who has several limb birth defects and can't scoot a chair to and from his desk.

Mr. Atkinson filled the bill, with a chair culled from the most unlikely parts: the lift mechanism from a hospital bed, ball bearings from the drawer slides of a file cabinet, a wheelchair motor and wheels from a kitchen cart that he found in a trash bin at Montebello Rehabilitation Hospital, which donates shop space to the VME.

The clients are asked to pay for the cost of materials, but usually that is donated. The American Legion in Hampstead put up $200 for Jacob's chair, and state grants paid for Ms. Baylus' loom.

Since Mr. Staehlin started the Baltimore group, colleagues who have moved to other parts of the country have started about eight similar groups in Idaho, California, Boston, Dallas-Fort Worth and other places.

"They show each other projects and give each other ideas," Ms. Baylus said. "They're the kind of people who, rather than retiring and doing nothing, they get more out of helping other people. They have so much to give, it would be a shame if they didn't."

The engineers approach these projects as if they have a surplus of ideas they can't keep inside. Elizabeth Herrman, volunteer services coordinator for the organization, has a theory about their zeal.

"They start out as engineers because they want to build things," she said. "Then as they get older, they're put behind a desk and they can't tinker any more. So then when they retire, they have a chance to go back and get their hands into the nuts and bolts and wires again."

When Ms. Herrman asked Mr. Atkinson if he could fit Jacob's chair into his already full schedule, the engineer took one look at a newspaper photo of Jacob hurling a soccer ball and said yes.

Jacob's arms stop at the elbows. He has a prosthesis on one leg and a brace on the other. An independent boy, he is in all regular NTC classes -- even physical education -- but one thing he couldn't do was scoot his chair under his desk. His occupational therapist, Donna Langmead, noticed it one day in class.

"The teacher called all the kids to the front of the class and Jacob was left at his desk saying, 'Hey, what about me?' For me, he was trapped at his desk.

"My goal has always been for him to be independent," Ms. Langmead said. "I knew what I wanted in a chair."

But she could find nothing on the market that would move him back and forth, as well as up and down to adjust to the different heights of the desk, cafeteria table, computer lab and other places.

Ms. Langmead contacted the VME, located in the state-run Maryland Rehabilitation Center on Argonne Drive in Northeast Baltimore. The shop is in the adjacent Montebello Hospital.

A spirit of cooperation exists with both institutions. In exchange for the hospital sending odd pieces of equipment to him to recycle, Mr. Atkinson helps them repair their own equipment. The cushions for Jacob's chair were made by students in the upholstery shop at the Maryland Rehabilitation Center.

"It's fast enough to be practical but slow enough to be safe," Mr. Atkinson said of his creation. "I think of it as over-designed and overbuilt, but I think it will do the job."

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