My day with Henry Evans — a quadriplegic who’s gaining movement through robotics

Henry Evans, who suffers from severe quadriplegia, attempts to use the Stretch RE1 Robot as a surrogate for body parts he can no longer control.
Henry Evans, who suffers from severe quadriplegia, attempts to use the Stretch RE1 Robot as a surrogate for body parts he can no longer control. (Peter Adams)

In 2002, at age 40, Henry Evans suffered a massive stroke that left him mute and with severe quadriplegia. Since then, other than his ability to turn his head and the limited use of one finger, he lies paralyzed in bed.

Henry cannot speak, but he can communicate with his eyes, using a “letter board” to painstakingly spell out words letter by letter by shifting his glance, which his wife, Jane, strings together into sentences. Henry, now 60, and Jane, 58, have developed such an uncanny ability to communicate this way that they no longer need an actual letter board.

Henry can also communicate with the outside world using a small reflective dot affixed to his glasses. The dot, which tracks his head movements, moves the cursor of a computer as if he were using a mouse or trackpad with his hands. Combined with a special on-screen keyboard, he can type up to 15 words per minute and dash off emails — which he did several times with me as we were coordinating our interview.

Like others with a severe disability, Henry is dependent on caretakers to help him eat, shower, move about, even scratch an itch.

You could say that scratching an itch is what led Henry to robotics. After seeing a TV interview with health-care roboticist Charlie Kemp, Henry reached out to see whether Kemp had used robots to serve as extensions or surrogates for body parts. The result has been a 20-year collaboration between them, with Henry acting as a beta tester of the robots that Kemp and others create.

By leveraging their work with some of the top minds in robotics, Henry and Jane have become tireless advocates for the disabled, openly sharing their research and experience via their organization, Robots for Humanity.

The day I arrived at Henry’s house this past summer, he was testing Kemp’s newest robot — the Stretch RE1. Stretch was much smaller and more capable than other robots Henry had worked with in the past. Weighing 51 pounds, Stretch was almost entirely a robotic arm that moved up and down a four-foot shaft. A small motorized base enabled the robot to maneuver into tight places where it could “stretch” its arm up to 20 inches outward to grasp or deliver objects.

Assisted by Vy Nguyen, an occupational therapy doctoral candidate from Pacific University, Henry had already spent weeks learning the ins and outs of the new robot. And now they were going to put it through its paces for me by performing several tasks.

The first was for Henry to attempt to unplug his percussion machine — which helps loosen chest secretions to keep his airways clear — from the wall socket.

Henry explained this was for his safety just in case something went wrong with the machine while no helpers were around and Henry was unattended. I originally didn’t think much of the task until I saw what went into piloting a robot to grasp something as flimsy as a power cord.

As the day went on, the tasks got more complex. Henry used Stretch to scratch an itch, brush his hair and, eventually, feed himself.

But I’ll probably remember the final task forever.

Henry wanted to do something for Jane. Being a bit of a romantic, he used Stretch to pick up a rose from his bedside table and bring it to Jane, who was down the hall in their living room.

As I watched him deliver that rose, I finally understood why this work was so important.

The robot was doing far more for Henry than taking care of his body. It was also feeding his soul.

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