As I See It: God Bless Technology
August 11, 2008 Victor Rozek
Technology is a canvas painted in broad strokes. It tends to be discussed as an abstraction, serving as a one-word synopsis for the diverse exertions of scientists and engineers. Technology is a verb without a definitive object. It has become an end in itself, many steps removed from the lives of end users.
While the cultural impacts of technology are readily apparent, the personal impacts are far less evident. We may approximate from sales and usage figures the number of computer owners and Internet users. We can track how many messages they send, and which Internet sites they frequent; but the effect of computers on their lives is known only to them, and perhaps those closest to them.
This, then, is a story about the profoundly personal effects of technology.
On a blustery day in October of last year, a 20-year old college student crept silently through the thick forest understory. Finding a log, he lay down, propped his weapon against it, and waited. A half-mile away a vehicle was approaching. A man was four-wheeling on a nearby logging road, scanning the forest, his own rifle within reach. But there were two crucial differences between the men whose paths would shortly intersect. The one on the forest floor had a paintball gun; the man in the Jeep had a small caliber “varmint” rifle. And while one was playing war with his friends, the other was looking for something to kill.
Their lives changed in one monumentally irresponsible instant when the driver of the Jeep armed with a man’s weapon and a child’s unthinking carelessness, detected movement in the underbrush and fired at what he later claimed he believed was a skunk. The bullet entered the young man’s neck, severing a portion if his spinal cord and damaging the rest beyond repair.
At that moment, whether he lived or died became wholly dependent on two factors: the tenacity of the emergency medical team dispatched to the scene and the technology at their disposal.
A medivac helicopter arrived, but by the time the young man was stabilized the weather had worsened, making it unsafe to attempt an air transport. An ambulance was called and the senior flight nurse took charge. Five times on the way to the hospital the wounded student flatlined, and fives times she brought him back. Her skill and tenacity gave technology its chance.
After emergency surgery, the young man lay in Intensive Care for three months, fighting for his life, deprived of everything but the ability to blink. Computerized machines breathed for him, tracked his vitals, and alerted the nursing staff to minute life-threatening changes in his condition. Computer-generated charts, reports, numbers, graphs and analyses, spoke on his behalf; and the steady hum and warning beeps of life-support systems broke the dreadful silence that surrounds the critically ill.
Day after day, his grieving parents stood by their son’s hospital bed, holding his hand and gently stroking his arm. It was a gesture of reassurance and comfort; a tender expression of their love. In their touch resided all their hopes for their son’s survival and his future. And although he could no longer feel their touch, the gesture was no less important for being futile. They had few alternatives left. This was the terrible reality delimited by the bullet.
The prognosis was bleak and the young man’s options appeared to be limited. He will remain trapped within a body that no longer responds to his will. He will never again feel the warmth of human touch below his head. He will not run, or dance, or climb mountains, or have children. He takes nourishment through a feeding tube and urinates into a plastic bag. Each new day portends to be the same as the last. But a small miracle occurred when his breathing tube was removed from his throat and permanently installed in his trachea: it was discovered that he could move his lips and form words with his mouth. And, after the swelling in his throat went down, he was able to push a little bit of air out with the help of the ventilator.
Just that tiny puff of air was enough for him to interact with another miraculous technology–the computerized wheelchair. Using the tongue and tiny sips and puffs of air, a quadriplegic is able to maneuver a specialized chair. A computer translates the esoteric input into stop, go, and directional instructions. (There are now even wheelchairs that use a computerized system of sensors, gyroscopes, and electric motors to allow indoor and outdoor use on stairs and uneven surfaces.) The gift of unassisted mobility did not come easily. It took six weeks of rehab for the young man just to tolerate sitting up for any length of time.
Mobility addressed one form of isolation, but there was still another. The inability to easily communicate was highly frustrating. Imagine focusing on letters on a reader board and hoping the person holding it will follow your gaze and surmise your intent. Or worse, being dependent on lip-reading, which is utterly baffling to the untrained eye and largely a matter of guesswork. Communication was therefore very limited and frequently the frustration got so great that the young man would give up.
Again, technology intervened. A company called Eye Response Technologies modified a portable tablet PC with a camera mounted to the base of the system that tracks and reacts to the eye movement of the user. Tying cursor control to eye movement allows the disabled to surf the Internet, compose e-mails, and essentially do almost anything commonly requiring a computer. The system includes text-to-speech translation, giving voice to the voiceless, and customizable phrase boards and word prediction capability to speed up the communication process.
The unit is compact, lightweight, can be mounted to a wheelchair, and includes an eight-hour battery. It also features a wireless networking card and environmental control software that allows the user to control room lights and such devices as TVs, stereos, and DVD players. Plus, in a thoughtful concession to financially strapped families, the company includes free lifetime software upgrades.
What this will mean to the young man going forward is incalculable. He has already expressed an interest in finishing his education, and the ability to use a computer will make him employable. For the severely disabled, independence is a precious commodity and attaining even the smallest bit requires an effort of mountainous proportions plus the ability to remain optimistic in the face of overwhelming odds. Progress is measured in tiny increments. Families pray daily for small miracles: the ability to swallow, to move a single finger, to make sound, and to find providential ways of recovering a small measure of normalcy. It is technology that answers those prayers. It makes hell tolerable, and keeps hope alive. For countless brave and injured people, computer technology is the buttress that supports an indomitable human spirit.
The young man will never meet the software developers and engineers whose genius and vision have given him the great gift of possibility. But his gratitude and that of his family is profound. They would, I think, want the programming community to know this: Never doubt that what you do is important.
To the software developers who labor unacknowledged and unappreciated; whose brilliance is embedded in the products that add a measure of functionality to broken bodies, and give hope to tortured souls. . . thank you. To those who ease the unimaginable burden of helpless families by assisting their loved ones to reclaim a small portion of their lives. . . thank you. Know that the severely disabled and their families treasure each victory you make possible; each hard-won bit of progress is cherished as a pearl beyond price.
The young man whose story you’ve read is named Jesse. He turned 21 in the Intensive Care Unit. After months of rehab, he was moved to an assisted living facility. His parents are hopeful of bringing him home. Last week, my wife and I got our first e-mail from him.
God bless technology.