Quadriplegic receives computer to help with everyday tasks

Shawnice Singletary, paralyzed in a shooting during the summer, gets a kiss from her trauma surgeon Dr. Albert Chi. She was presented with a Tobii C12, an eye-tracking computer that will enable her to communicate.
Shawnice Singletary, paralyzed in a shooting during the summer, gets a kiss from her trauma surgeon Dr. Albert Chi. She was presented with a Tobii C12, an eye-tracking computer that will enable her to communicate. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

Shawnice Singletary was driving in Northeast Baltimore in May when someone pulled up next to her car at an intersection and fired a gun at her. Bullets slammed into her face and neck.

At the Johns Hopkins Hospital emergency department, doctors saved Singletary's life. But she couldn't breathe on her own. A doctor broke the news to her that the mother of three was paralyzed from the neck down: a quadriplegic.

But on Tuesday, Singletary was set on a path to regaining at least some independence. A team of people and organizations who have helped care for her donated a $16,500 mobile computer that Singletary can control with her eyes.

She can use it to send email and text messages, make phone and video calls, listen to music, take photos and surf the Web.

"I'm still getting used to it," said Singletary with a smile during a small ceremony at Hopkins. "You can do a lot on here."

The 36-year-old clinical assistant said she's been devastated but is still hopeful for a better life. Still, life as she knew it — driving, hugging her children, earning a paycheck — irrevocably changed with a bullet in her neck, fragments of which are still inside her.

The shooting has echoes of the sudden death 18 years ago of her younger brother, a third-grader named Tito, in an accidental shooting on a Baltimore street by a teenager playing with a gun.

"It's still very hard for me to believe that this happened to me," Singletary said.

Her shooting remains under investigation, and no one has been arrested.

Singletary is benefiting from the rapidly evolving field of computer assistive devices, which crosses the latest in cutting-edge communications technology with therapeutic and rehabilitative care in hospital settings. Doctors and manufacturers are bringing assistive devices into hospitals earlier in patient care, to help them better communicate with medical staff and their friends and family.

Patients can use these devices at home or in hospitals, to communicate with those around them, and lessen their reliance on others for basic tasks. And the technology for eye-gazing software and hardware is becoming more ubiquitous and cheaper.

This field of augmentative and alternative communication devices has been around for a while but as advanced quickly in recent years with faster and smaller computer processors, and the rise of smartphones.

The assistive technology market is growing fast, thanks in part to the growth of populations of older and disabled people in the United States. The U.S. market for assistive technologies, which includes low- and high-tech vision, auditory and speaking aids, is projected to grow from $41.1 billion last year to $55 billion in 2016, according to London-based Vertical Edge Ltd., a market research firm.

Some technology companies are using simple Web cameras to incorporate eye-tracking in their software. More robust software and hardware, such as what Singletary is using, applies infrared camera technology that was once prohibitively expensive for most commercial applications.

Singletary's doctor, Albert Chi, researched eye-tracking software on the Web and cobbled together a way for her to browse the Internet through a webcam that tracked her eyes.

"She got online right away and started getting on Netflix," Chi said. "She was so amazing."

Then Chi stumbled upon the Tobii, made by a Massachusetts-based company called Tobii ATI. The Tobii is a touchscreen monitor with two built-in infrared eye-tracking cameras mounted below the screen.

This computer tracks the user's eye gaze patterns, allowing the person to use his or her eyes like a computer mouse. Such hands-free operation enables Singletary to type out words on a screen or speak commands through a computerized voice, and much more. She can even control her home's air conditioning from the device.

Text-to-speech is important for Singletary, who only recently regained the ability to speak after having to re-learn to breathe on her own, without a ventilator.

The Tobii C12 model that Singletary received and other similar devices typically are covered by insurance plans, and Medicare and Medicaid.

Tara Rudnicki, president of Tobii ATI, said patients like the device because it returns some semblance of privacy. They can browse the Web and make phone calls without someone's help. They can have private conversations. They can watch a movie without asking for help.

"It brings more independence back to the patient," she said.

People paralyzed by gunshots are not the company's most common customers. Its devices are used a lot by sufferers of a neuro-degenerative disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, otherwise known as ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease. Other users suffer from Rett syndrome, stroke, autism, repetitive stress and spinal cord injuries.

The long-term promise, Rudnicki said, is that such computers can help people ultimately regain employment.

The company's technology, for instance, is being used by animators and graphic artists who suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome. Instead of drawing with their hands, they can draw with their eye movements, she said.

Tobii ATI donated the device to Singletary. Meanwhile, Hopkins staffers and the Specialty Hospital of Washington, which helped Singletary re-learn how to breathe, each donated $8,440, to help her defray additional expenses.

Singletary is still receiving care at Hopkins.



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