Wireless reconnects spinal patients

Published: November 28, 2004
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By Jon Fortt – KNIGHT RIDDER

Stephen Suer has a passion for books, scuba diving and road bikes: He’s not your typical banker.

But his life changed on a bike ride near his Sacramento-area home in May when a van pulled in front of him, and Suer plowed into it. The impact demolished his chin and part of his nose, punctured both lungs, and injured his spinal cord — rendering him unable to talk, walk or use his hands.

Now Suer, an introvert with smiling eyes, is once again learning the basics from his bed in the Spinal Cord Unit at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose. With therapists who visit the Rehabilitation center most days, he is relearning speech and swallowing. And with the help of a laptop computer and a new wireless network rarely found in hospitals, he is learning to hope again.

Valley Medical is at the vanguard of a new trend, providing hospital patients and their families with a tool to conduct business, chores or basic communication.

Suer, 53, is now able to get e-mail from his wife and children on a donated laptop, using the same wireless technology families increasingly use to share high-speed Internet connections at home. The program was envisioned and financed by Ron Sidell, a former technology director at Genentech in South San Francisco. Sidell’s battle with debilitating Guillain-Barre syndrome has shown him the importance of communication, so he made the donation through the VMC Foundation, a private corporation supporting the hospital.

“These people are spending a lot of time in their beds, staring at the ceiling. Friends are afraid to visit,” Sidell said. “The will to live is really connected to the love and support you receive through family members.”

Carolyn Suer said her husband felt locked within himself for the first six months after his accident, when he couldn’t speak or write, and communicated mainly through the slow process of nodding when she pointed to letters on an alphabet board.

Earlier this month, the hospital provided Stephen with a HeadMouse, a head-controlled pointing device for his laptop, and a wireless connection to the Internet. “That was really a turning point for him,” Carolyn said.

His body might be broken, but the vitality he shows in small ways is testimony to his toughness. Before the accident, Stephen went to the Gold River Racquet Club for two hours every morning to work out. Now, Carolyn said, that discipline is helping him focus his energy on survival.

Wireless technology is still uncommon in hospitals. When present, it’s often there for medical reasons rather than for patient use, said Kent Soo Hoo, research project manager at Health Technology Center, a San Francisco nonprofit that tracks the use of technology in medicine.

“There’s definitely demand out there” for patient and family access, Soo Hoo said. Communication with family and friends “can be beneficial for their mental state.”

Valley Medical Center’s spinal cord unit is dedicated to the treatment of some of the most devastating injuries people can suffer, and serves all of Northern California. It serves a maximum of 20 patients at a time, and is one of 16 spinal cord facilities in the country that provide emergency services, rehabilitative care, long-term follow-up with patients, and other specialized services.

Stephen’s teenage daughter, Kelly, recently reached him via instant messaging, using software she had loaded on his laptop. Stephen was a frequent e-mail user before the accident, but had never bothered with instant messaging.

“On the Internet, you can do so many things,” Stephen said, his voice breathy and deliberate through the tube in his chest. “It’s hard to describe — if you haven’t been able to communicate for six months, it is so exciting.” He pauses. “I get on the computer and I forget how long I’ve been on it.”

Carolyn met Stephen when she was 17, and he was her scuba instructor during college. After their wedding, they honeymooned on the Cayman Islands, and now their two youngest children, Kelly and Jeff, are scuba certified. Injury survivors and doctors say that though the injury happens to the patient, it also happens to the whole family.

Spinal cord centers tend to be the province of young men. Some patients, like Stephen, are active people who suffered an unlucky collision with fate, but many others are daredevils who like speed, heights and risk.

Richard Patterson was like that — correction, is like that. At 19, his all-terrain vehicle flipped and went over an embankment near Davenport Beach, outside Santa Cruz. Twenty-two years later, Patterson is still in a wheelchair, with limited but improving use of his hands — and he helps the hospital’s other spinal cord injury survivors harness technology to improve their lives.

“The personality of the person really isn’t going to change,” he said, adding that people just need to find new ways to express themselves. Technology such as e-mail and voice recognition software provides exciting possibilities. “No longer, I think, is there going to be the excuse that, ‘I’m trapped,'” Patterson said.

Justin Suer looked admiringly at his dad in his hospital room last week, impressed at the progress he has made in just a couple of months. Their relationship had been distant until exactly two weeks before the accident, when Justin wrote his father a letter.

A week before the accident, Stephen had flown to Indiana to see his 32-year-old son, and they spent a weekend in a cabin at Clifty Falls, staying up late, no TV, pouring out their hearts to each other.

After Stephen flew back to California, they e-mailed each other daily and talked on the phone two or three times each day. The following Sunday, Stephen told his son he was going on a bike ride and to call him. Justin called but did not get an answer. He soon learned why; the initial word was that Stephen Suer might not live.

“I selfishly thought, ‘This is not happening to me. I’m just getting to know my dad,'” Justin said.

Since then, Justin said, he has been inspired by how his dad is handling the recovery. And now Justin can send e-mails again, which Stephen can read without an intermediary. Perhaps eventually they will be able to continue their e-mail discussion of “The Purpose-Driven Life,” a book they had been talking about before the accident.

In a manila folder marked “Personal,” Justin keeps some journal notes his dad wrote about the book, before everything changed.

One is particularly poignant to both father and son:

“God specializes in giving people a fresh start.”