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Sensors for Seniors

2020-2022

Pandemic Project #1: Wireless sensors and gateway for CareBank

The Covid-19 pandemic was devastating to public health, but it also stimulated the development of new technologies hoping to re-establish our social connections. I met Claude Goodman in March 2020, learned of his CareBank project, and gladly took on the challenge of developing improved wireless sensors for that system.

The concept of a Bluetooth Low Energy module and motion sensor was not unusual, but long-range transmission, long battery life, and ease of battery replacement by an elder were more demanding requirements. We used BLE 5.1 and careful antenna design to extend the range and a low data rate to achieve >1yr of battery life. To change the battery, the user just slips off a silicone band (blue band in the rendering) and slides a new coin cell battery into a slot.

The next challenge was reliably relaying the sensor data to the CareBank servers in the cloud. While an up-to-date smartphone with an Internet data connection could do that job, it wasn’t realistic to assume every elder had such a smartphone always operational. As an alternative, I developed a Bluetooth-5-to-cellular gateway prototype. To maximize range, antenna placement was carefully optimized, and the communication link uses positive acknowledgement and retransmission to overcome dropouts. The gateway’s 3D-printed enclosure plugs into a standard USB charging brick, and the combination plugs into a wall outlet like a nightlight.

When it was time to manufacture a prototype run of 75 sensors, we hit one more challenge: the 2021 global semiconductor shortage. I learned how to source components from dwindling stocks in multiple countries and have the PCBs fabricated and assembled overseas. We were lucky; some key chips now have a one year lead time.

Shrinking Circuits, Meet Shaking Hands

DIY assistive technology for assembling miniaturized electronic prototypes

2020

When I first started tinkering with electronics in the mid-20th century, most circuits used vacuum tubes. Over the 60 years since then, I’ve been privileged to witness the stunning progress in miniaturization, first with transistors, then basic integrated circuits, all the way to highly complex chips the size of your thumbnail with billions of transistors inside. To keep pace, small passive components — resistors and capacitors — shrank too. To build a prototype of a wearable device with a small size and weight, you have to be able to assemble these minuscule chips and components.

To assemble a circuit, I apply solder paste to pads on a printed circuit board using a laser-cut stencil. A boom microscope provides adequate magnification to see the parts, but the final step requires using a hand-held forceps to pick up and place the tiny components in exactly the right positions on the PC board. By the time I reached 70 years of age, the parts had shrunk to 0.040 x 0.020 inches size, with placement tolerances of 5 thousandths of an inch. And I found I could no longer grip, maneuver, and release the part from the forceps with the rock-steadiness required. Unwilling to give up, I hatched a DIY solution that restored my ability to place components at this new level of precision. More details are available after the photographs.

The first problem was one of crosstalk between two manual processes: moving the part into position over the PC board, and releasing pressure on the forceps at the right moment. The solution was to use a vacuum pick-up device instead of a forceps, and to reassign the function of releasing the vacuum to a foot pedal instead of my hand. From the photos, you’ll see how I started with an inexpensive vacuum pump, then added solenoid valves and associated circuitry to allow foot-pedal control of the vacuum.   

The second problem was that of tremor. With aging some neurons conduct impulses more slowly or even stop functioning, and a servomechanism with excessive delay in its control loop will overshoot and oscillate — and that causes tremor. The solution was to add a stabilizing fixture, with a fulcrum close to the PC board, and damping to reduce the oscillations. The stabilizing fixture was 3D printed, and its fulcrum area and the pickup tool were covered with rubber tubing selected for its damping characteristics.

Lending a Hand

2017-2018

3D Printing a Low-Cost Prosthetic Hand

I began using 3D printing for my wearable device prototypes, sending designs to a service such as Shapeways or contracting with a local firm run by biomedical engineer Rachel Dreilinger. But I wanted to iterate on my designs more quickly and at lower cost, so in 2017 I built my own 3D printer from the Prusa i3 MK3 kit.

I discovered there’s a learning curve to 3D printing, but fortunately there’s also a massive online community of “makers” adopting the technology — over 1000 right here in Portland! –so there has been plenty of help available. One community, e-Nable, has tackled the challenge of 3D printing free prosthetic hands for clients in lower medical resource environments. It’s well organized, with an informal certification program for fabricators, and the accompanying video was my application for approval.

Designing and Printing a Robotic Gripper

As 3D printing became easier, public libraries stepped in to provide access to this technology. The Hillsboro Public Library built a well-equipped “Collaboratory” makerspace where I served as a volunteer, teaching a class and helping patrons use the devices available. A fellow volunteer had taken on an interesting project — designing and fabricating a sophisticated robotic arm — and given the daunting size of the project, he welcomed my offer to design a gripper to go at the end of the robotic arm. You can learn about my efforts in the associated video here.

Hearts on Fire

Cardiac Stress Monitoring and Notification for First Responders

2017-2020

After retiring from full-time work at CCHIT, I accepted a volunteer role closer to home, as an Advisory Board member for the Berglund Center at Pacific University. Following several years serving as a judge on their annual Inspired Ideas competition, I was asked in 2017 if I could take on a bigger role: mentoring their winning team of students to guide them from their raw concept to a working prototype. 

The team of psychology graduate students had been studying and treating stress in firefighters. They, and I, were surprised to learn that heart attacks — not fire, smoke, structure collapse or falls — were the leading cause of on-the-job deaths in firefighters. The students wanted to equip firefighters with heart monitors that would measure and relay their stress levels to the incident chief, but lacked any engineering training or resources. I liked this challenge immediately and accepted a role as their engineering consultant.

Wearable physiologic monitors were an already well-established technology, appearing in smartwatches and fitness bands. But there was a showstopper: their low power 2.4 GHz Bluetooth transceivers could not achieve the communication range and reliability needed at an incident site, and we could not rely on a consumer smartphone as a relay in this demanding application. Then the proverbial light bulb of invention clicked on: every firefighter already had a robust wireless communication device: a UHF portable radio, controlled by a shoulder-worn speaker/microphone. We conceived of a “smarter” speaker/microphone unit that included a microprocessor and Bluetooth transceiver to receive the physiologic data. Heart-rate based alerts could then trigger a synthesized voice message. The alert could be played locally over the speaker to notify the firefighter him/herself, and then — if more urgent — it could activate the push-to-talk circuit and be transmitted over the portable radio’s network to the incident commander.

I started with a breadboard consisting of an Arduino-compatible microcontroller, an MP3 player, a Bluetooth module, and relays to trigger the PTT and switch the audio. The students’ jaws collectively dropped when they saw their idea actually working, despite the ugly breadboard implementation. The next step was to shrink the size by designing a custom PCB and a 3D-printed case, creating a first prototype that could at least fit in your hand. For the next iteration — now called HeartMic — I plunged into C programming to get all the necessary code running on the microprocessor included in the Bluetooth chip. With the separate microcontroller eliminated, the device was slimmed down to fit in the palm of one’s hand. The finishing touch was laptop software, communicating via Bluetooth, to configure HeartMic with specific alert levels for each firefighter. We demonstrated the system at a fire station in Washington state, and applied for a patent which was granted in 2021. The students truly had a “full stack” product development experience!

Filling a KNeed

2016-2021

Wireless, Wearable Tracker for Post-Op Knee Rehabilitation

Over a million joint replacement surgeries are performed annually in the U.S., a number that’s expected to explode as my fellow boomers injure or wear out their knees and hips. While the surgery and joint implants have been continually refined, the rehabilitation phase at home hasn’t benefited from technology — yet. Orthini, a Portland startup, was formed to address this need. I came on board as a consultant to create a proof-of-concept prototype. Think of it a specialized version of a fitness tracker that measures knee range-of-motion and rehabilitation activity during the critical first few post-operative weeks at home.

Our design goals included light weight, ease of applying/removing, and no restriction of joint movement or visibility of the healing wound site. We also hoped to make it easier to apply a cold pack, and if possible, monitor the use of that as well. 

Our brilliant apparel consultant, LaJean Lawson, came up with a lightweight harness that strapped to the thigh and calf, leaving the knee exposed. The electronics are hidden within the “smart buckles” that fasten the harness. This was my first experience designing an enclosure that progressed all the way to injection molding. The electronic design using a Bluetooth module and accelerometer sensors was more straightforward, but sensors to monitor the wearing of the device itself and application of the cold pack required some novel ideas. The US Patent Office agreed, finally issuing a patent in 2021 (3 years is par for that course).

Smart Buckle

KneeCoach Assembly

KneeCoach on Manikin Knee

KneeCoach Patent

Badges of Honor

2015-2018

A Wireless, Wearable Assist for Assisted Living

In 2015 I connected with Bill Reed and Lydia Lundberg, innovative pioneers in the assisted living industry. At their company, Elite Care, Bill had been searching for technology solutions that could satisfy the conflicting demands of safety vs. autonomy for their residents, but found no suitable commercial products. The staff and residents were already wearing identification badges, so Bill hoped we might develop these into Bluetooth wireless “smart” badges that could enhance residents’ safety and comfort, as well as staff efficiency. 

Besides being nametags, the badges functioned as emergency call buttons. We experimented with auditory feedback from the call button when pressed — a short audio recording of a loved one reassuring them that help was on the way — but this didn’t prove helpful. More successful was the inclusion of accelerometer, gyro, and temperature sensors to measure activity and environment. And finally, the badges could serve as locators. With Bluetooth receiving stations (“hubs”) installed throughout the facility, a central server could estimate the location of each badge based on signal strength at each hub. The badges could also act as receivers to detect which other badges were nearby, potentially providing data on social interactions and staff presence with a resident. 

Early prototype PCB

Early prototype case

Final prototype PCB

Final prototype case

Show Me Some Spine!

2013-2018

My first wearable project: SpineTracker

At the Quantified Self 2012 meeting at Stanford University, I met Esther Gokhale, an expert posture teacher who had been helping people with back pain.

As I studied her research, I saw how important the posture of the spine was in her methods, and I wondered if technology could be designed to precisely measure and display a person’s posture in real time. I had training and experience in engineering and medicine, but my electronic hardware  skills were decades out-of-date, and I’d never designed a wearable device. To her great credit, Esther decided to give me a chance, and Wearable Health Labs LLC was born.

During this saga, I learned to design PC boards, have them fabricated, place tiny surface mount components using a forceps and microscope, and reflow solder the boards using a $10 hot plate and homebrew temperature controller. Then I tried some primitive Computer Aided Design (CAD) software to design prototype enclosures to be 3D printed. And finally: coding firmware for Bluetooth radio modules and software for laptops to receive that data wirelessly (I had not yet learned to write smartphone apps). After 5 years, many prototype iterations (shown in the accompanying slide deck), and considerable help from other consultants, we had a finished product. The video below shows the Spine Tracker in use.

This could be the start of something big…

2012-Now

The Startup Ecosystem: mentoring, investing, incubators and accelerators

Startups — newly founded companies — are prized as engines of economic growth. While Oregon’s “fertility rate” hasn’t approached that of the SFO Bay Area, an impressive number of companies have started here. This Silicon Forest Universe chart, circa 2002, illustrated how as a handful of Oregon tech companies grew large, then spawned constellations of new startups — sometimes as formal corporate spinoffs, but more often just founded by former employees of the large companies — and the cycle continues.

Soon after I founded MedicaLogic, I was fortunate to be joined by veterans of Mentor Graphics; a decade prior to that, Mentor had been founded by some former Tektronix employees. That’s one pathway for talent, but there’s much more to the startup ecosystem.

My friend Rick Turoczy, whom I was privileged to have working with me at both MedicaLogic and CCHIT, is now a leader in Portland’s startup ecosystem. If you want to know what’s happening there, Rick’s SiliconFlorist blog is the place to go.

But Rick hasn’t just been writing about startups; for almost a decade he’s been helping them grow, as head of the Portland Incubator Experiment (PIE). I signed up as a mentor, and I’ve lost count of how many entrepreneurs I’ve enjoyed talking with as a result of that connection. In 2013, I was a mentor for the Nike+ Accelerator by TechStars and I’ve continued a relationship with my mentee from there, Sprout at Work, now a leader in digital corporate wellness services.

When I work with startups, sometimes I make a modest “angel” investment along with an advisor role, but only when I believe the company can have a positive impact on human health. In many cases I offer technical consulting to worthwhile startups pro bono for the simple joy of it, and there are several examples in my later posts.

Quantified Self

2011-2018

After experiencing a cardiac event in 2007, I became intensely interested in the science of health behaviors and habits, and began experimenting with technology to support self-tracking and self-improvement. In 2011, I discovered Portland’s local Quantified Self meetups, eventually becoming one of the QS organizers, and giving presentations at their national and international meetings. In a QS presentation, an individual must describe their own self-tracking experiments, reporting three things:

  • What did you do?
  • How did you do it?
  • What did you learn?

This first presentation was delivered at the worldwide QS Conference in Amsterdam.

This second presentation describes my HealthESeat project, an effort to make “seat time” less harmful by encouraging me to exercise my legs while performing computer work.

HealthESeat was a “full stack” project. It included furniture modifications, proximity and rotation sensors, an LED biofeedback light, an Arduino microcontroller, and finally PC software to accumulate data and present visualizations of trends over time. Later, I added an EKG monitor for heart rate variability measurements.

I’ve found Heart Rate Variability (HRV) to be one of the most interesting physiological measurements. Research has associated it with physical health as well as psychological resilience.  I’ve experimented with ways to measure it — using either EKG or PPG biometric sensors — and ways to use it as real-time biofeedback, as well as long term tracking of trends, as described in this QS presentation from 2015.

I’ve seen benefits from my self-tracking efforts, but an even greater benefit has come from meeting such interesting people in the QS community. These associations planted the seeds for my post-retirement business, Wearable Health Labs LLC.

Woodworking Projects

2010-2015

With my retirement from full-time work at CCHIT in 2010, it was time to rewire — an opportunity to explore new pursuits and rediscover old ones. With my newly completed workshop ready, I immersed myself in woodworking, something I’d always enjoyed but never had the time and space really needed. 

I started with smaller projects, such as bird feeders, cookbook holders, and jewelry boxes, then built my bandsaw skills by helping my grandson Ryan fabricate a custom subwoofer enclosure for his car. But before cutting up expensive furniture hardwoods, I needed more confidence in my designs. Fortunately, along came SketchUp, Google’s free computer-aided design (CAD) software. It was immensely satisfying to design a furniture piece in CAD, preview and refine its appearance on screen, then finally mill, assemble, and finish the project. There are some examples in the gallery below.  

Building A Woodworking Shop

2007-2010

Preparing to Retire ReWIRE

Woodworking had been a casual hobby ever since wood shop in high school, but I’d never really had the space it required until we moved to the farm. As retirement approached, I got deeply involved in designing a woodworking shop inside a corner of the barn. True to form, I made mechanical and electrical drawings of everything before I pounded the first nail, and researched the advantages of every machine tool before buying it.

Building the shop was my first real carpentry project, and I had to learn as I went. The electrical part was easier: ample 220V power, heat and A/C, and a vacuum sawdust collection system that activated automatically with the tools. The pictures below show some of the features of the shop.

For raw woodworking material, I hoped to draw upon our orchard of Black Walnut trees. They were 80 years old and a couple of them fell over each year. After cutting the trunks to 3-4 foot lengths, I hauled them to a shed for drying, and rigged up a home-built milling sled for my bandsaw. While I was able to produce some boards, the over-aged wood was full of internal cracks and warped badly as it dried. It was a disappointment but a valuable learning experience.

Take Me Home, Country Roads

2000-2019

Harmony Oaks Farm

When Carolyn and I married in 1999, she sold her farm in Coos Bay before moving to my home in Portland, but brought along her beloved Quarter Horse named Lady and an Arabian gelding called Spri. My home had a beautiful view but no land for horses, so they had to be boarded many miles away, an unhappy situation for Carolyn, Lady, and Spri. We soon remedied this by moving to a farmhouse on 50 acres of land near North Plains, which we named Harmony Oaks Farm.

This was a bit of an adjustment for me, a guy who previously might list dirt, smells, and manual labor as his least favorite things. With only a dirt road for access, my nice shiny Lexus SC400 suffered flat tires and was always dusty, and there was no one to clear snow from our long driveway. Our vehicular fleet needed a makeover: a Toyota pickup replaced the Lexus, and a Kubota BX24 tractor with front-end loader and backhoe was added. I learned how to make compost using the front-end loader to combine the horse manure with grass clippings. Then I had to learn to operate the backhoe to dig trenches for various water and electrical lines. My favorite tractor job was building trails and roads!

Besides the tractor, there was a lawn mower, a chipper, a tiller, a blower, a trimmer, a pressure washer, a chainsaw and I can’t remember what else. That meant a lot of fussy small gasoline engines to maintain! My solution: an electric utility cart (basically a Yamaha golf cart with a dump bed), modeled here by Carolyn and Riley. Once I added a 48VDC to 110VAC inverter, we had a rig that could pull a dump trailer and supply 1500 watts of AC power anywhere on the property. The small gas engine tools were replaced with electric ones, and even larger electrical appliances — like a shop vac — gained new uses. Finally, mounting an electric leaf blower to the cart’s front bumper gave us a driveable street sweeper that made quick work of our 1/2 mile of driveways.

We needed to keep the crop area productive, but many farmers in the neighborhood were retiring. Eventually we found a farmer who, though elderly,  planted alfalfa on our land and brought in several harvests a year. We fed our horses some and sold off the surplus.

Adventures in Health IT Policy

2004-2014

Certification Commission for Health Information Technology

In 2003, I became Medical Director at HIMSS, the Health Information Management Systems Society, a nonprofit trade and educational association. In this role I organized various committees and events to spread the word about the benefits of electronic medical records. But in 2004, things became more serious: a National Coordinator for Health IT (informallly called the Health IT Czar) was appointed by then-President Bush. The first National Coordinator, David Brailer, MD, PhD, immediately published a strategic plan for speeding up health IT adoption, with a key element: government-approved testing and certification of EHRs (renaming EMRs to EHRs was another thing he did).

HIMSS and other health IT organizations felt strongly that any such effort should come from the private sector, so we quickly recruited a blue-ribbon panel to demonstrate our readiness, and somehow I was named Chairman. Simultaneously, the Federal government announced a Request for Proposal for an organization to develop standards and processes for testing and certification. We called our panel the Certification Commission for Health Information Technology (with the acronym CCHIT), drafted a proposal, and won a three-year federal contract beginning in 2005. Leading a nonprofit, 501C(3) organization under a federal contract was the complete opposite to presiding over a private-sector for-profit company. Every decision and relationship had to be completely transparent. The work of drafting our standards was done by over 300 volunteer subject matter experts, in a multi-stage process with opportunities for public comment at every step. We held Town Halls at conferences, and Town Calls online, to communicate with all stakeholders many times each year.

Once CCHIT’s first Ambulatory EHR certification program was Federally approved in 2006, every medical setting and specialty clamored for an extension to their domain, keeping us very busy and raising our visibility. I provided testimony at Congressional hearings to report on our progress, and appeared on the list of the “Most Powerful Executives in Health Care”. Under newly-elected President Obama, legislation was drafted offering $30 billion in incentives to healthcare providers adopting EHRs — providing they were certified. CCHIT had a front-row seat to this legislative process, being experts on certification, but with so much money on the table, the pressures only became more intense, and the weekly cross-country travel (I’d hit the million-mile flyer mark) adversely impacted my health. So I decided to retire in 2010, although I continued to consult for CCHIT until 2014. Soon afterward, with its mission complete, CCHIT wrapped up its work and ceased operations.

The Accidental CEO

1993-2003

In 1993, Rick Samco and David Moffenbeier, two of the early founders of Mentor Graphics, joined me. At Mentor, they had been through all phases of a fast-growing business, but my only experience was managing a handful of staff in my medical office. With physicians being the key customers for our EMR, they insisted I leave my medical practice and be MedicaLogic’s full-time CEO. Thus began my 10 year on-the-job learning experience.

My comfort zone had been as a solo programmer writing software. Now that was over, because we needed a larger team to move quickly, upgrading from a character-based program in MS-DOS to a more modern graphical user interface. By 1994 this team had created Logician, a fully-featured EMR running on Microsoft Windows. Records were securely stored on an Oracle database back-end.

It was the CEO’s job to articulate the company’s vision to potential investors — a big change from writing code in my basement at night. I had to go from being a reluctant public speaker to a confidence-inspiring leader. Thanks to Dave and Rick’s track records, by 1995 we were pitching to the venture capital firms of Silicon Valley. Sequoia Capital and other firms were sufficiently convinced to plunk down several million dollars for our first round. Later rounds brought in even more capital.

What next? Well, of all the careers I’d ever dreamed of, “salesperson” was never one of them, but now I was needed as a key sales asset. Doctors, nurses, and healthcare leaders wanted to hear a physician explain the benefits of an EMR. I morphed into a road warrior, delivering conference presentations, EMR seminars, and outright sales pitches to prospects across the country.

Going Public

Our sales kept doubling every year, putting us on the Inc 500’s list of the fastest growing companies for 3 years in a row while we acquired marquee customers, even including the NASA astronaut program. But the late 90’s dot-com boom drove the expectations for startup companies even higher. “Get big and go public, or go home” was the challenge, and we accepted it, joining the parade of companies preparing for an IPO in 1999.

While the IPO may be considered the holy grail by many entrepreneurs, for me it just felt like a necessity of the moment we lived in, and it was exhilarating and terrifying in equal measures. Once public, we joined the frantic wave of mergers and acquisitions underway, buying Medscape, which operated both physician- and consumer-facing medical news websites, a digital records transcription firm, and smaller companies with technologies (such as electronic prescribing) that rounded out our offerings.

Within months, the dot-com bubble popped, dragging the NASDAQ market — and all newly public companies — down with it. Customer confidence and sales deflated along with the stock price. We sold off Medscape and slashed expenses while we searched for a corporate buyer that might recognize the value of our product and customer base, if not our stock certificates.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, as I drove to the Portland airport to fly to a meeting with General Electric executives about an acquisition, the news came on the radio. The staff at our Medscape office in New York were shell-shocked but unhurt. Beyond that, time just stopped.

GE did eventually acquire MedicaLogic in 2002, but by then it required going through a bankruptcy proceeding to clear up various liabilities. The acquisition restored customer confidence, and the EMR product, renamed Centricity, remained one of the leading products in the ambulatory care market for many years to come.

My personal fit with the customs of a huge corporation was not ideal, but I was intrigued when serving as GE’s representative on various healthcare IT policy initiatives. So after 18 months with GE, I departed for the nonprofit healthcare IT sector, thinking it would provide a relatively calm respite after my saga as CEO of a publicly held company. Instead, yet another adventure lay ahead.

Electronic Medical Records: 2nd Generation

1986-1992

By the mid-80’s, PC hardware and software had advanced enough to put a networked workstation in every room of the medical office, sharing data from a relational database stored on a centralized hard disk drive. So I set out to write the next generation of my EMR software.

GUIs (graphical user interfaces) weren’t yet in wide use, and many experts argued that doctors would never use keyboards, but I rejected that opinion. I figured that doctors resisted keyboards more because of “secretarial stigma” than from an inability to learn touch-typing; and since any clinician using an EMR regularly would soon become an expert user, an efficient keyboard command interface would serve them well.

After creating and using the 2nd generation EMR in my own office, it attracted the attention of my educational software customer, Eli Lilly. With two new recombinant DNA drugs on the market, they asked me to create EMR software to support specialists using those products. Over the next several years, I developed Humabase for doctors treating diabetes, and Growthbase for pediatric endocrinologists treating growth hormone deficiencies. Specialized features included the ability to print Lilly’s educational handouts on demand, upload and analyze data from home glucose meters, calculate dosages, and create individualized children’s growth charts. Lilly distributed the software gratis to doctors as an educational service (though that might not be acceptable today) and it was warmly embraced. A handful of doctors became so attached to it that I found copies still in use 30 years later!

While Lilly was distributing its specialized versions of the EMR for free, I built a more general-purpose version for my own office, which became a kind of showplace for computer applications in ambulatory care. Among its off-the-wall features:

  • Tracking and analysis of patient waiting times at every step by tapping into the chart holders and room signal lights
  • Nurse and assistant call buttons with escalating alerts designed to minimize patient waiting times
  • Background music in exam rooms that faded in/out automatically on my arrival, with music selections tailored to the patient’s age cohort
  • After-hours dial-in chart access; using an early cell phone, I could enter touchtones and the computer would read out my patient’s problems, medications, and allergies

When I demonstrated this at conventions, it generated so much interest I decided to try marketing the EMR myself. It soon became clear that my marketing, sales and implementation skills were woefully inadequate. The product name kept changing (Mark-20, System II, ClinicaLogic) as did the sales model (software-only? software-hardware bundles? fully-installed turnkey?). I needed help.

By 1993 two founders of Mentor Graphics — Rick Samco and David Moffenbeier — offered to join, fund, and help grow MedicaLogic, but I’d have to leave medical practice and become a full-time CEO. Once again I left a comfortable career behind for a riskier path. It would prove to be the adventure of a lifetime.

Desperation is the Mother of Invention

1983-1985

While I was busy building up my internal medicine practice and side business in clinical software, my wife Susie’s health was deteriorating as the complications from 20 years of Type I (insulin-dependent) diabetes accumulated. Home blood glucose monitoring was becoming available, and it was hoped that more precise control of insulin dosage could forestall complications, but data management remained primitive and paper logbook-based.

In hopes of helping Susie record and visualize her blood glucose data, I added a remote terminal to my Apple II+, consisting of a TV set mounted into the wall of the kitchen and a light pen built from plans in Byte Magazine. The built-in TV made the kitchen look high-tech, and the light pen let her enter her blood glucose without using a keyboard. The software could print out a log for visits to her physician, who found the graphs printed on curly thermal paper occasionally helpful.

Despite attempts at careful glucose control, the complications accelerated, eventually leading to end-stage kidney failure, treated with at-home peritoneal dialysis. There was no invention I could come up with to overcome this setback. All I could do was help manage the thrice-daily sterile drain/refill procedures and make sure the required medical supplies were always on hand.

When severe hyperparathyroidism then developed as a complication of the renal failure, Susie underwent surgery on her neck to remove the overactive glands, but the outcome was disastrous. She was left with vocal cord paralysis requiring a permanent tracheostomy, taking away her ability to speak while recovering. Finally, this was something I could help with. I put a 555 oscillator and small speaker into a brass tube, directing the sound output through a smaller soft rubber tube. With the tube in the corner of her mouth, she could create speech with a fairly intelligible albeit robotic-sounding voice. I found the gadget still in my “junk box” 35 years later.

Complications continued to set in, and she passed away in 1985.

I’m (Not) Falling For This

1983

The Ambularm – an ambulation alarm

At St. Vincent Hospital, word spread quickly about the quirky new hybrid doctor/engineer down in the basement, and one of the senior physicians soon wondered if I could help him solve a big problem: patient falls. Despite instructions not to do so, patients would get out of bed and fall down on the way to the bathroom. Even the best hospitals experienced hundreds of these events per year, causing everything from bruises to hip fractures to head injuries and deaths. Bedside rails didn’t reliably prevent this, and restraining the patient in bed wasn’t acceptable either.

Weight sensors in the bed had been tried, but they didn’t activate until the patient had left the bed, and they didn’t protect a patient who was sitting in a wheelchair either. So we hit on the idea of a battery-powered tilt sensor that would be worn in the thigh, and would sound an alarm as soon as the femur (thigh bone) angled downward more than 30 degrees.

I built a crude prototype with Radio Shack parts in a plastic box with an elastic strap to hold it on the thigh. It looked promising so we had a PCB and molded case professionally designed, and eventually received a patent. The Ambularm made a distinctive bell-like sound that brought a nurse running before the patient got to his/her feet, and fall rates were cut in half. I wasn’t involved in the later stages, but apparently the Ambularm stayed  on the market until 2015.

Electronic Medical Records: 1st Generation

1982-1985

With residency complete, I rented space in the basement of St. Vincent Hospital to launch a solo practice in Internal Medicine. I’d been pondering  how to program the Apple II+ to improve practice efficiency and patient satisfaction. Three needs stood out: problem list maintenance, medication/prescription management, and customized info printouts for the patient. During those early months, the appointment book had plenty of gaps, and I spent them writing code in Apple Basic.

I had wide printer paper manufactured with perforations; it would tear apart into a letter-sized page and 3 prescription slips. As each visit ended, I updated the patient’s problem and medication lists, checked off any necessary refills, and selected from a list of information handouts for various conditions. Zing, zing went the Epson dot matrix printer. Then I handed the patient a summary of their diagnoses and medications, educational information, follow-up instructions, and a stack of neatly printed prescriptions.

Patients loved these handouts, and my practice grew as they showed their friends what a modern doctor they had!  But of course there were limitations. A floppy disk could only hold about 100 patient records, so it required disk swapping (e.g. A-E, F-J, K-O, P-T, U-Z) as the practice grew. Text notes were typed on a word processor, but there wasn’t room to store them on floppy disks, so they were printed out and kept in conventional paper charts. At best this was a computer-assisted, but not fully digital, record system.

So I had to wait for technology to catch up to my dreams. I bought a Kaypro-10, the first hard-disk PC, but it proved a dead end. When the IBM-PC/XT arrived, I abandoned Apple Basic in favor of dBase II, a high-level relational database language. Finally, low-cost networking arrived, supporting data-sharing between PCs installed at the front desk, in exam rooms, and in my office. It was time to create the next generation EMR.

Docs just wanna have fun

1981-1989

Clinical Simulations on the Apple ][+

The Apple II+ personal computer appeared during my residency (1979-1982) and I wanted one badly. Susie feared it was just an expensive toy ($1200 was more than a month’s pay for a resident) but gave in, bless her soul. After playing with the Flight Simulator program, I became convinced that clinical simulators could be useful — and even fun — in medical education. So off I went on this side project during any spare time I could scrape together.

By the time I finished residency, I had created HeartSim, a cardiac electrophysiology simulation, and Condition Critical, an intensive care case simulation. I installed them on a computer in the ICU’s call room so fellow residents could try them out, but they attracted even more attention from sales reps of medical device and pharmaceutical companies. They wanted customized, trademarked versions for use at convention booths.

MedicaLogic is born

I created the customized program, adding a scoring system based on the player’s treatment efficacy: student, intern, resident, attending, and so on. Viewing this as a fun educational project, I offered the Eli Lilly reps the software on cassette tape (as a floppy disk drive was beyond my budget) for free. But they needed multiple copies, on diskettes, so we turned it into a barter deal: they bought me a disk drive, and I delivered the program on floppy disks.

After the convention, I heard that the convention organizers had asked Lilly to close down the simulation games during presentation hours, because attendees were lining up to play these games instead of going to the presentations. Apparently, when experienced physicians received a “student” rating, they kept coming back to play until they could level-up to the status they deserved!

I incorporated MedicaLogic in 1985 to put this activity on a more robust business footing. Eventually there were simulations for diabetes, cardiac transplantation, infectious disease, and other clinical scenarios. When Lilly learned I was working on Electronic Medical Record software, a new chapter would begin.

A Medical Residency in Portland

1979-1982

How I learned to hate paper medical charts…

I chose Oregon Health & Science University for my residency. Susie’s health was declining so we chose Portland to be near her family.

A few weeks into internship at the Portland VA, I was summoned at 2 AM to “pronounce” a patient. Being my first time, I was very careful to check for vital signs and confirm the chart matched the patient bracelet before signing the certificate. Paged again at 3 AM, I was told it was also my responsibility to call the family. Trudging back to the ward, I took the chart handed to me and called the number on the next-of-kin form. The daughter was shocked, but I did my best to console her. After another fitful hour of sleep, I was paged again to find the daughter had arrived and now confronted me with her declaration that “my father’s not dead!” My own heart stopped — had I missed a faint heartbeat? She led me to a different patient room, where a father wondered why his daughter seemed so surprised to see him.

At my 3 AM call, I’d been handed the wrong chart, with the same, common last name. The daughter was so happy to find her Dad alive, she didn’t lodge a complaint, but I was deeply mortified. I already disliked the messiness of paper medical charts, but this took my aversion to a new level. It probably set the stage for my 30-year career endeavor to bring medical charts into the computer age.

 

A novel form of doctor/patient communication

In my senior residency year, we had a patient in the VA ICU with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a rapidly progressive paralysis that ascends from the legs upward through the body. With meticulous care there can be a full recovery over many weeks, but the “locked-in” phase of complete paralysis can be psychological torture. We could only guess at what he wanted or needed and his suffering was undeniable.

When his family visited, I asked them about his experience as a WW II veteran. When they reported he was a submarine radio operator, a light bulb blinked on in my brain. I asked him if he knew Morse code, and he blinked once for yes, but trying to blink his eyes in Morse code quickly exhausted him. So I examined him to see what other muscle strength he had left, and found he could still clench his jaw slightly. I donned a glove, put one finger between his teeth, and asked him to try sending Morse code that way. Immediately he squeezed out HOW DO YOU DO. THANK YOU !

I built a crude Morse code key using tongue depressor sticks, a switch, and buzzer. With this he could send clean Morse code, and became quite chatty with me! A Morse code chart over the bed helped the nurses understand him, though he had to send very slowly. Finally able to express his needs, he made it through the locked-in phase to a full recovery.

Med School in Miami

1977-1979

On Old Olympus’ Towering Top…

Just how did the University of Miami magically compress the usual four years of medical school into just two? Well, if you taught beginner swimming by throwing everyone into the deepest end of the pool, then awarding diplomas to any survivors, you’d have the basic idea.

While the “basic sciences” would normally be covered in two years of lectures and labs, we had them crammed into 9 months. For the PhD-to-MD students with doctorates in the biologic sciences, it was intense but doable. But for those from pure engineering backgrounds  — bereft of pre-med courses such as organic chemistry — the only way to survive was with intensive memorization. Mnemonics — unforgettable sayings whose first letters correspond to the names you’re trying to memorize — were key. And I created over 1500 flash cards, flipping through them late into every night.

Pocketing my first medical informatics invention

Emerging from the 9 month onslaught of lectures, it was time for clinical rotations, in which the junior medical student’s role is to gather all the data  surrounding every patient, and be able to instantly and flawlessly report it to the more senior residents and attending physicians – any time, any place.

Scribbled index cards were in common use, but I wanted something more compact and organized. So I designed and built the custom plexiglas pocket clipboard, shown here. I had index cards printed with a grid and punched in the 4 corners, to keep penciled-in data organized in rows and columns. Each patient had a problem list, med list, history and physical, and lab flowsheet all on a single card.

With the clipboard back transparent, I kept critical info (drug doses, telephone extensions, etc) on the back of the bottom card for instant access. Those two plastic arches had a thin gap at the top, letting me insert or remove any card in the stack with the flick of one hand. There was one side effect: notoriety. Whenever the attending doc asked for more detailed patient data, the ward team just turned to me, “the clipboard guy”.

Saab Story

1976-1977

Like many parents with a new baby, we thought it was time for a safer, roomier car, and what could be safer than a Saab from Sweden? Front wheel drive for snowy traction, forward-hinged hood that wouldn’t fly up in a crash, ignition key down on the transmission tunnel where it couldn’t injure your knee, door panels with hip protectors, and an impossible-to-ignore chartreuse color that outshone even school-bus yellow.

That clever ignition key that locked the transmission in reverse, well, it couldn’t be unlocked on the slightest hill. So I yanked the whole ignition key assembly and built a cipher-lock with a telephone keypad, some digital logic, and relays. Punch in the sequence and press a button to start.

For the cross-country trip to med school in Miami with Susie and Amy, I added a hitch and cargo trailer. But halfway through California, the car quit in a town hundreds of miles from any Saab dealer. I was able to locate and fix a bad fuel pump ground, but no longer trusted the car for a cross-country trip with a wife and infant.

Instead, I dropped off Susie and Amy in Tucson, to stay with my mother. Then my father and I would complete the drive together to Miami. Finally, Susie and Amy would fly to Miami and Dad would fly back. Besides enjoying a father/son road trip, Dad would get to see his long lost brother Hilly in Coral Gables, FL.

The drive went fine, and Dad and Hilly had a joyful reunion. As I prepared to start medical school at the University of Miami, Hilly took Dad sightseeing down the Florida Keys. One night they stayed up late playing poker, and my father — who according to Hilly had just drawn a royal flush — suddenly keeled over in cardiac arrest.

Now I had to fly back to Tucson to inform and comfort my mother while arranging my father’s funeral. Med school classes had already started when I got back to Miami to begin the next phase of my life.

Fatherhood Changes Everything

1976-1977

In March 1976, I told my supervisor at ESL I needed a week of parental leave, immediately. When asked why I hadn’t given more notice, I admitted I’d just found out myself. With raised brow he quipped, “hmm, not very observant, are you?”

My boss had simply made a wrong assumption. Susie was already experiencing ophthalmic complications from her Type 1 diabetes and had been advised not to get pregnant, so we’d applied to adopt. Then nothing for many months, and suddenly — instant fatherhood!

The shock of sudden fatherhood rocked my world, leading me to reflect on my own life choices, and what they meant for my family. In a few years, Amy would be asking me what I did at work. And while the engineering challenges in the defense industry were interesting, they didn’t feel sufficiently valuable to humanity.

Beat the rush! Have your mid-life crisis early!

I thought it was time for a change and contemplated applying my electronic engineering skills in the biomedical industry. While sending out some initial feelers, I met an IBM engineer named Jack Gelb at a cocktail party, who upon hearing my story said he knew of an engineer, Bill Podolsky, who’d made a complete switch from engineering to medicine, via a unique medical school program at the University of Miami. I contacted Dr. Podolsky and he invited me to visit him at Stanford Hospital where he was serving his residency.

That’s how I learned of the University of Miami PhD-to-MD program, a federally-subsidized experiment to head off an expected physician shortage. Open to engineers and scientists with a PhD, it compressed the normal 4-year med school curriculum into just 2 (very intense) years; the usual pre-med course prerequisites were all dropped.

I am eternally grateful that Susie, may she rest in peace, embraced this idea. We’d soon be selling our new home, one of our cars, and all our furniture, leaving friends and family behind to spend two years in Miami, Florida. We knew I’d be working hard but we could not know all that lay ahead.

The Seventies in Silicon Valley

1971-1977

In Spring 1971, companies visited the U of A campus in search of new EE grads. With Vietnam and the Cold War raging on, it was defense companies making the most attractive offers. I was about to accept an offer from MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, but a boutique Silicon Valley defense contractor — Electromagnetic Systems Laboratories (ESL) — outbid them by throwing in full tuition for grad school at Stanford including time off with pay when attending!

After graduation, I arrived in Sunnyvale with my worldly possessions in a U-Haul behind my VW beetle. The photo shows me and my first wife, Susie, in front of a condo we’d just purchased in the crazy Bay Area housing market. In 1975 we had to camp outside a development sales office for 7 days and nights to buy our first tract home.

Finding a direction in direction-finding

At ESL I started work in the Antenna Department, designing antenna systems for radio direction-finding systems on reconnaissance aircraft. First, an accurate scale model of the aircraft was built from aluminum. Then, we fabricated working scale models of the antennas, often an inch or less in size, and mounted them. The finished model with antenna arrays was tested in an anechoic chamber to measure the radiation pattern and other characteristics of the antennas.

In case an engineer might be needed onboard during testing, I and a few other engineers went through hypobaric/rapid-decompression training. That was an unforgettable experience, fortunately never subsequently needed. I’m surprised that almost 50 years later, a version of this reconnaissance plane is still being flown by the Air Force.

Graduate studies at Stanford

While playing with model airplanes was fun at ESL, I was also engaged in the serious task of completing an M.S., and then a Ph.D., at nearby Stanford University. The STAR (Space, Telecommunications, and Radioscience) lab attracted me, and it was an enormous privilege to have Prof. Ronald N. Bracewell as an initial advisor, and later Prof. Robert Helliwell as I focused on my dissertation.

My dissertation covered the development of a specialized receiver for tracking and performing direction-finding on VLF (very low frequency) radio signals called whistlers. Fans of technologic history can find out more in Don Carpenter’s epic memoir here: The Early History of Very Low Frequency (VLF) Research at Stanford

I thought life would be simpler once I completed my Ph.D. work. And once again, I could not have been more wrong…

Adventures in Audio and Engineering

1967-1971

From ’67 to ’71 I was attending the University of Arizona toward a BS in Electrical Engineering. My interest in ham radio had faded, replaced by a fascination with sound and audio engineering, and somehow I found time to work several side jobs while still in college.

KXEW-AM had landed an FCC license to add an FM signal. They promoted me to Chief Engineer and had me supervise the purchase and installation of a 5 kW FM transmitter and a second broadcasting studio. This was great fun for an 18-year-old nerd! To avoid the expense of adding a second full-time DJ, we installed one of the early “automated” radio studios, with reel-to-reel tape recorders and robotic drums of tape cartridges. With PCs not yet developed, this ran on banks of telephone stepping relays and was programmed with a telephone dial. You can probably guess that this Rube Goldberg contraption did not survive for long.

It was around this time that ICs (integrated circuits, or “silicon chips” to the layman) became available to hobbyists and experimenters. I wanted to try building a circuit with both analog and digital ICs, so I designed and built a compact automated studio console for KXEW’s remote broadcasts. This was my first “professional” electronic project. Operational amplifier ICs served to mix audio from a microphone, two turntables, and two cassette playback decks. Digital logic ICs automatically started and stopped the turntables and decks when you pushed a single button.

To protect the setup in mobile use, I also built a custom, padded “roadie” case from plywood. Now I can see that this project was the precursor of two of my lifelong hobbies, electronics and woodworking.

Around this time, I learned that a new recording studio had opened up in Tucson. I dropped in on a whim to see if they had any openings. Forster Cayce, owner of Copper State Recording Studios, was always looking for technical help, so he graciously gave me the grand tour. His studio had a brush with greatness, doing early sessions with Alyce Cooper and Linda Ronstadt, but I never met anyone famous. I mainly cleaned and aligned the massive Ampex multitrack recorders, and occasionally helped with roadie duties. But I eagerly absorbed lots of new knowledge about sound and recording. And I took advantage of their commercial discounts to customize my home stereo with massive studio-quality Altec speakers. As I entered my final year of college, I thought I was headed for a career in audio engineering. I was wrong.

You never forget your first kiss car

1960 Chrysler 300F

1965-1969

1960 Chrysler 300F

Through my teenage years, there was no date I anticipated more than October 16, 1965. It wasn’t a birthday, but the day I’d become eligible for an Arizona driver’s learning permit. I started shopping for cars months in advance, and I wanted a unique car that nobody else at school would have.

A few weeks before the magic date, I spotted a Chrysler 300F, incongruously parked in a British sports car dealer’s used lot. I knew this model, a limited production series Chrysler had been building with the goal of winning some races. With a 413 cubic inch V-8, long “cross-ram” intake manifolds that gave a supercharging effect, and dual 4-barrel carburetors, it had won the Daytona speed record in 1960. Inside were swiveling bucket seats and a hemispheric instrument panel that glowed like a spaceship. At only $600, I wanted it more than anything in the world, even though I couldn’t yet drive it home myself.

Naturally, I had to customize it further. It didn’t need more power or speed, so I focused on the interior and electronics. Of course it needed a 2-way radio, and for music a cartridge tape player and a reverb box. The reverb gave an auditorium ambience to the music, but as a side effect it injected a large “sproinggg” sound if you hit a big bump. There was also a minor mishap when I removed the stock radio. Wrestling it out from behind the dash, it shorted out a fuse block and set the wiring on fire. The car was still drivable, but when you stepped on the brake, the horn blew. It was an embarrassing trip to the dealer to get all that repaired.

As other students started adding sound systems to their cars, I had to kick things up a notch: add a bar! Well, sort of. I added a plastic tank in the trunk and ran a hose to a Sears sink spigot mounted on the center console. Turn the faucet, out could come water, soda, whatever I had loaded in the tank. I added a Dixie cup dispenser to the seatback and the decadent ambience was complete.

World’s Youngest Jewish Spanish DJ

1965-1970

After achieving the most advanced Amateur Radio license at age 13, I studied two more years to pass the FCC First Class Commercial Radio license exam. With this in hand, I applied to local radio stations for a job as a transmitter engineer.

Tucson’s rock station KTKT was my first choice, but they hesitated since I was only 15 and it might violate child labor laws. I kept trying until I reached KXEW-AM, a 100% Spanish-language station. My Dad had to take me there to apply, since I was too still too young for a driver’s license. The intrigued station manager, Ernesto Portillo, said he could overlook that issue if I’d take $1/hour to cover weekends (I had to be in school during the weekdays). I had my first job!

I stuck to the room initially, but the Spanish-language immersion and the party atmosphere at the station (after all, it was called Radio Fiesta) was infectious. I observed how the announcers operated the studio console to seamlessly mix music, commercials, and patter into an engaging program. One Sunday morning I turned on the transmitter but the DJ didn’t show up. I played some records while I called Ernesto and asked what to do. He said, “well, start announcing, muchacho!” So I did! Later I got my own teenage Spanish rock-and-roll show. It didn’t last long, but I still claim the Guinness record for having been the “World’s Youngest Jewish Spanish DJ“.

Wireless Wizardry

1960-1963

The Attractions of Amateur Radio

We moved to a different house in 1960, where the prior owner had left a short-wave antenna on the roof with a wire dangling into the dining room. Intrigued, I begged my Mom to buy a crystal radio kit I’d seen in a store window. Connecting to the antenna, I could hear local radio stations.

Then a neighbor across the street erected an enormous antenna on his roof, and I started picking up a much louder signal which I realized was coming from him. I shyly knocked on his door and showed him my crystal set. After a thoughtful puff on his pipe, he invited me in to see his own radio equipment. He let me spin the glowing receiver dial and I heard voices from all over the world. Then he activated his transmitter, made a contact, and handed me the microphone so I could say hello to someone far away. I was instantly spellbound by this wireless wizardry (and admittedly, I still am). 

I’d found my first mentor, Fred Mey, K7JFY. He explained how I’d have to learn Morse Code and radio theory to get a license, and off we went. Here I am in July 1960 proudly displaying my novice class call sign, KN7OLZ (aka the Old Lonesome Zombie):

School was not nearly as interesting to me as radio, and I was ravenous to gain more technical knowledge. Luckily, I could reach the Tucson Public Library downtown on my bicycle, and they had a complete collection of the amateur radio magazine, QST, in their stacks. I had the librarian bring me a few years of issues at a time, starting around 1930. So I learned radio technology in the same chronologic sequence that it had been developed. I also practiced Morse Code to gain speed. By the time I was 13, I had gained sufficient technical knowledge and code-reading speed to pass the test for the highest amateur license level, called Extra Class.

A Chicago Childhood

1950-1957

Planting the seeds of lifelong passions

Although my life began in mid-20th century Chicago, my family’s Orthodox Jewish traditions were holdovers from their Eastern European roots. As a result, I attended kindergarten and 2nd grade in a parochial school, learning Hebrew in the mornings, and conventional English subjects in the afternoon. I think this photo was taken in the cloakroom at that school, and given the bowtie and cufflinks, I’m dressed up for some holiday.

I didn’t like this school and much preferred to think about cars. I studied the automobile dealer pages in the phone book until I had memorized every model. I was proud to be able to precisely identify the make, model, and year of almost any car on the road, just from seeing its taillight or bumper shape.

My parents also felt I needed music lessons. But why accordion? The only music studio close by? At any rate, I learned to read music and play some accordion standards. Any requests for Lady of Spain — anyone…anyone…anyone?

Following a rather traumatic hospitalization for asthma, I also became interested in doctors and medicine — I liked their white coats, stethoscopes, and the respect they commanded. Young boys were frequently asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, and I quickly learned that “doctor” was the correct answer to that question.

In 1957 our family moved to Tucson, Arizona, where the climate was believed to be more healthful for my asthma. There, these three seeds — cars, music, and medicine — would later sprout into lifelong passions.