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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.

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.