All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for May 2004

Inventor devises feeding station for paraplegic

Sat, May. 22, 2004
Donna Wright
Bradenton Herald

Leo Nagle of Ellenton is blessed with an extraordinary imagination and talent to make anything his mind can conceive.

The Colony Cove home he shares with his wife, Phyllis, is a testament to his creativity.

Many of his designs are fanciful bursts of whimsy: Fiber optics filaments bloom from the bells of old trombones, which have a second life as table lamps. A 6-foot leaning tower of Pisa, complete with twinkling lights, welcomes visitors at the front door of the Nagles' home. In the front yard, a skeleton rides an old-fashioned, big-wheel bicycle on which hangs a sign that reads "Original Owner."

But 84-year-old Leo, a former toolmaker for General Electric from Saugus, Mass., has a practical side, too.

That's how he came to design a self-feeding station for Gary Connell of Granby, Conn., who spent the last six months visiting his parents, Fred and Helen, who are the Nagles' neighbors at Colony Cove.

Gary, 39, has battled multiple sclerosis for 12 years. The progressive disease has left him a paraplegic. With concentration, he can move his left arm a few inches to control the toggle switch on his motorized wheelchair, but his range of motion is so small that there is no way Gary can feed himself.

At home in Connecticut, Gary often has to spend hours by himself while his wife works.

Gary's dilemma of not being able to eat or drink during those long hours bothered Leo.

After watching Gary control his wheelchair to move around the house by depressing the toggle switch, Leo had an inspiration - a self-feeding station designed with a similar switch Gary could control to choose different treats and drinks from a motorized Lazy Susan set in a tabletop adjusted to the level of Gary's mouth.

With a few knobs, a doorbell switch, a Styrofoam drum stuck with a bunch of toothpicks mounted on an adjustable table made from four poles and shelf, Leo created his feeding station.

The Styrofoam Lazy Susan has four holes in the center to hold drinks with straws. Using the toothpicks, Leo arranged a variety of foods - pickles, cheese , meatballs and pieces of fruit - around the Styrofoam cylinder:

When the doorbell button is depressed, a motor slowly turns the Styrofoam cylinder. When the piece of food or drink that Gary wants is in front of him, he releases pressure on the switch so the cylinder stops. He can then lean over and pick up the food with his mouth or take a sip through the straw.

Gary and Leo demonstrated the self-feeding device for me on Wednesday.

The mood was festive in the Connells' living room as neighbors arrived with a feast of meatballs, canapes and drinks for the motorized Lazy Susan. Helen, Fred and Leo bustled around the feeding-station table as Gary navigated himself into position.

After tweaking the tilt and height of the seat, Gary slowly moved his left wrist toward the table, depressing the doorbell button with the back of his hand.

Leo's simple design worked amazingly well.

The wheel began to slowly turn as a big meatball came into position, Gary let go of the switch, leaned over and snatched the meatball with his mouth, a smile spreading across his face as he munched and swallowed the treat.

Because the toothpicks were at different angles, Gary, at times, had to adjust his wheelchair to get his mouth at the right level to grab the food or straw, but, overall, Leo's device worked just as planned.

In its developmental stage, the feeding machine is a prototype for better models to come, Leo said.

He can adapt the design to whatever range of movement a person might have. A foot pedal, for example, could be used to start and stop the motor instead of a hand switch.

Gary said he would like to have a toggle switch to start the Lazy Susan spinning and then have another switch to stop it where he wants. That way he wouldn't have to keep pressure on a button, which is difficult for him, to make the wheel spin.

Such modifications are grist for Leo's imagination.

His ideas flow so fast he can hardly contain his excitement.

So what is it like living with such an inventive guy?

Phyllis, Leo's wife, just grinned.

"It keeps him out of my way," joked Phyllis. "He's always making something. He made his brass cannons so big I had no place to put them and so we had to turn them into end tables."

The Connells love living next to Colony Cove's imaginative inventor.

"That Leo, he's so creative," said Gary's father, Fred, as he watched his son grab meatballs off the spinning feeder.

"Yeah," Leo quipped, "I can make anything in the world but money."

But financial gain is not Leo's primary motivator.

He wants to help people, which is why he called me a few weeks ago to tell me about his invention.

Leo read a recent story I wrote about the Manasota ARC home for disabled adults in the Thousand Oaks subdivision in Ellington.

Due to cuts in state funding, the nonprofit agency had to close one of its Bradenton residential group homes and double up clients in the group home at Thousand Oaks, near Colony Cove. The six group-home residents require intensive round-the-clock care.

That doubling up means that it takes staff more than four hours just to bathe, feed and dress the residents in the morning.

Leo asked if I could pass on his idea to Manasota ARC, which I have done.

But I wanted to do one better and write about Leo's invention in my column.

If anyone sees an application for this inventive design, call me and I will pass on your interest to Leo.

Copyright © 2004, Bradenton Herald