Like many wounded warriors in recovery at Walter Reed Bethesda, Marine Cpl. Chris Brown likes keeping in touch with his friends and family back home, and thanks to assistive technology, he can do so easily - and independently.
Brown has been a patient at the medical center since Dec. 19, 2011, just six days after he was injured in Afghanistan by an IED, which claimed both his legs and his right index finger. Upon arrival, his mobility was highly limited. According to Brown, he could barely sit up, let alone call his loved ones to let them know he was going to pull through. To help keep his phone at reach, and without relying on others to bring it to him, an assistive technology specialist, Mark Lindholm, mounted a robot-looking arm onto Brown's hospital bed, holding the phone conveniently at Brown's side.
Over the last two years, Lindholm has worked in Occupational Therapy at the medical center, using assistive technology - fabricating and adapting equipment, tools and technology to help patients improve their functional capabilities.
After customizing a devise for Brown's phone, Lindholm then attached another similar device to the wounded warrior's bed for his computer tablet, on which the Marine can watch movies, access his social networking sites, and most importantly to Brown, catch up with his loved ones.
"[These modifications] made things a lot easier for me because everything is hands-free," said Brown. "I don't have to hold up [my computer] to watch a movie. [I can] contact my friends and say, 'Hey, I'm OK,' and don't have to have someone reach [the phone] for me."
At one point, Brown told Lindholm he also missed his music, and so Lindholm rigged a small set of speakers to the top of his bed, giving him the feel of "surround sound," Brown explained.
"I got my own entertainment center on my bed," he said with a smile.
Brown's mom, Lynne, agreed these small changes have made "a world of difference." She recalled their hometown, Munford, Tenn., organizing a motorcycle ride in March to help raise funds for her son - and he could watch the entire ride from his computer without any strain. Seeing the outpouring support from his community goes a long way in his recovery, she said.
Expressing his appreciation for Lindholm's talents, Brown noted the independence he has gained and the impact this will have on his transition, as he prepares to move this month to the wounded warrior barracks on base. "People use their talents to help others, and this is [Mark's] way of helping. He has a very unique mind and way of figuring [things] out ... It's a blessing to me," Brown said.
Lindholm said he can't take all the credit - it's a team effort. Assistive technology specialists work in other areas of the medical center as well. In the outpatient setting, they help patients improve their basic living functions, and at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, they work with patients with traumatic brain injuries (TBI) to help improve their cognitive comprehension, he said. What Lindholm most enjoys about working in the inpatient setting, he added, is watching patients progress, and seeing the technology give them hope for a brighter future.
"Initially, it's pretty dark," he said. "This is just one little part, accessing a computer, [for example]."
In addition to smart phones and tablets, Lindholm has also helped set up "switches," allowing patients to change the volume and channels on their TV, simply by tapping a lever with their elbow, which is especially helpful when they aren't able to use their hands. He has also set up speech recognition equipment to help patients use their computers, and has set up a device allowing patients to move their computer mouse, simply with their head movement.
Lindholm explained how he creates these mechanisms, which he likened to 'erector sets.' He spends a lot of time experimenting, strategically piecing together nuts and bolts to figure out what will work best for each individual and where they are in their rehabilitation.
"He is just amazing at fabricating or altering devices," said Matt Dodson, TBI Occupational Therapy supervisor. "His ability to make everyday items, like TV remotes, accessible and readily available to the patients makes an incredible difference in their quality of life."
Dodson noted the assistive technology has also had a noticeable impact on getting patients more engaged in their treatment. "[This] has a carry-over effect into their entire health and rehabilitation."
Stephanie Johnson, inpatient Occupational Therapy supervisor, echoed the same sentiment. She explained, when a patient arrives at the medical center, it can be challenging to see beyond what they've lost, but with assistive technology, she said, they can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
"Mark's giving [patients] access when they have no access," said Johnson. "It truly is being able to see them little by little gain their independence, and that's what our profession focuses on."