January 10, 2014


"I Was Trapped in My Own Body" : Henry Evans is exploring how robotics can make life easier for the severely disabled--like Henry himself. (Brian Eule, Jan/Feb 2014, Stanford Magazine)

IN 2002, Henry's life was full. He was physically fit and a towering presence. The chief financial officer at a startup, he and Jane had four young children. Eight months earlier, they had bought their first house on a beautiful piece of land in Los Altos Hills. Henry, good with his hands, looked forward to renovating it. He was 40, and life was just beginning.

One August morning, despite a headache that had begun the night before, Henry was driving his children to school on the way to work. His vision narrowed and his speech began to slur. He focused on the road and dropped his children off, and then he turned around. Six miles back up the hill, Henry stumbled into the house. He braced against the walls and told Jane that he just wanted to lie down. She said they were going to the doctor. Henry had to crawl to get back to the car.

In the emergency room, Henry's right arm went limp. "I'm so scared," he told Jane. And then he fell into a coma.

Doctors initially thought Henry might have meningitis. It turned out that a birth defect had precipitated the stroke-like symptoms. The inner lining of his basilar artery had become detached and was blocking the blood flow. He was on life support, and when he finally emerged from the coma, he was unable to speak or move. Jane noticed he tracked her with his eyes.

"I soon realized they were all I could move," Henry writes. "My dad explained that I had no motor control, and I got it--I was trapped in my own body."

At first, Henry was unable to breathe on his own. He had a tracheostomy and a feeding tube, and he was on about 25 medications. Two blinks became "yes," and one, "no." He was barely alive, but his mind and his senses were perfectly intact.

"Minutes were hours, and hours were days," Henry writes. At the same time, his wife wasn't getting encouraging news. "They took Jane into a room full of doctors and told her that, in their professional opinion, I would never move and her best bet was to pump me full of antidepressants and stick me in an institution, and soon. Well, that was the wrong thing to say to Jane."

Four months later, Jane and Henry returned home. And though Henry had developed use of a finger and better control of his neck, he had a hard time thinking about living. For the next three years, Henry talked to Jane about helping him with suicide. Jane would try to get him laughing, saying that with his 6-foot-4-inch body, she could never pull it off. She also let him know she understood.

"I know how normal you are by asking me to do that," she would tell him. But she also told him something else.

"There is a reason God left you with your mind and you have life," Jane said. "Those are two incredible gifts that we take for granted every day. And the hardest thing you have to do is figure out why you're left here on Earth. It wasn't your time. Why? You have a purpose here."

IT STARTED WITH AN IDEA. Henry envisioned a head-mounted laser pointer that he could use to activate electrical switches. He made a sketch on the computer and sent it to a friend who was mentoring a robotics team at Palo Alto High School. The students designed a working prototype called the LaserFinger, which later won a grant from MIT. Though it was yet to be used in Henry's daily life, it got him thinking.

A few years later, while watching CNN, Henry saw an interview with Georgia Tech professor Charlie Kemp. Kemp was discussing his collaboration with Willow Garage, a robotics research lab in Menlo Park, and its robot, the PR2. Henry fired off emails to Steve Cousins, PhD '97, at Willow and to Kemp. Thus began a long collaboration between Henry and Jane, Willow Garage and the Healthcare Robotics Lab at Georgia Tech to use robots to function as body parts for the severely disabled. Henry called it Robots for Humanity, describing his work as "using technology to extend our capabilities, fill in our weaknesses and let people perform at their best."

"From a distance, all humans are disabled," Henry notes. "As humans, we adapted to our environment through evolution. We developed sight and hearing and speech. Yet these adaptations are quite limited. We can't run faster than about 25 miles per hour. We can't fly. We can't stay underwater forever and we can't be in more than one place at the same time. All humans are limited by nature in many ways.

"Now, I may have lost a few of the natural adaptations which evolution afforded me, but I have adapted to these limitations, often in a way similar to how you have adapted to nature's limitations. For example, I use a wheelchair to increase my mobility. You use a bike. You use a keyboard and mouse, I use a headtracker and a clicker to operate a computer."

One of the first things Kemp and Cousins did with Henry and Jane was ask them to identify tasks that would be the most helpful for a robot to perform. Scratching and shaving ranked high on their lists.

Posted by at January 10, 2014 5:59 PM

blog comments powered by Disqus