By Diane Huberty, Retired RN, Certified Neuro Nurse ...and ALS Patient
Advances "Around" ALS
One of the frustrations often expressed by those whose lives are affected by ALS is that no progress has been
made in the fight against it. I believe that they are aware of the great progress made in understanding the disease
process, the biochemical processes at the cellular level, the genetic, genome, and chromosomal tracking of the
disease. I believe that what they are referring to is that all of this work has not led to a treatment or cure, to
anything that can make a real, practical, day to day difference in our lives. Dedicated researchers have been
kissing a lot of medicinal frogs but haven't found a Prince. Rilutek rates as a "Sir" for its
effectiveness, or perhaps a "Lord" by virtue of being the first drug with proven effectiveness, but sadly
it is no Prince.
However, if advances "in" ALS aren't yet affecting our lives, advances "around" ALS
certainly do. I am referring to technological advances that have prolonged and improved the quality of our lives.
This technology isn't something that a person with a falling off a cliff kind of progression has time to
appreciate, but my progression has been a long slow tumble down a rocky slope. Over my twenty-nine years of living
with ALS, I have seen so many technological advances, each of which I use every day and none of which I take for
granted because I have seen life with ALS without them.
Even before I was diagnosed with ALS, I had decided that I would never want to live if living meant being
paralyzed and on a ventilator. I was an Intensive Care nurse and dealt daily with patients in that situation. Trying
to read the lips of those who couldn't speak, or worse, the eyes of those with facial paralysis, knowing they were
desperate to communicate basic needs was frustrating and heartbreaking. An itch they couldn't scratch or an
uncomfortable position they couldn't change would be bad enough, but what if they were trying to tell me of a
throbbing toothache, gall bladder attack, chest pain? Making their lives physically comfortable was so difficult.
Making them emotionally comfortable seemed impossible. Their days were spent staring at the same four walls and a
television whose channel they couldn't change. I wondered how they could bear the endless hours. No jaunts down the
hall much less a wheelchair ride outside. Just getting them into a chair was an effort because they were tethered to
a machine bigger than a dishwasher. Being at home would certainly be an improvement but still, I hoped that their
brains could somehow shut down imagination and desire, restlessness and boredom.
When I learned I faced all that because I had ALS, I was horrified. I knew I could refuse to be put on a vent
but would I be brave enough for that? Would I even be able to cope with the paralysis before the vent was needed? I
couldn't see how.
But that was in 1985. Today I am a vent dependent quadriplegic and quite a happy person. The future I thought I
faced in 1985 is far different than the life I lead today! Even before I left ICU nursing in 1987, technology was
In the late 80s, there was talk of a new type of ventilator that delivered air through a tightly fitted mask
over the nose rather than a tube inserted through a hole in the throat. Little did I imagine that first CPAP machine
would acquire computer chips by the early 90s and become a Bi-level Ventilator . Bi-level ventilators didn't exist
just 20 years ago and were not in common usage until about 10 years ago but today is part of the Standard of
Practice for ALS. That bit of technology kept me alive and breathing comfortably for 6 years until an invasive
ventilator was needed.
Neither did I envision what that ventilator would be like. In 1985 ventilators were the size of a dishwasher. By
the late 80s they were the size of a large microwave. It was certainly not worthy of the designation
"portable", but it was a start. The vent of today is no longer the size of a kitchen appliance. It is the
size of a laptop computer and hangs on the back of a wheel chair, making it -- and me -- portable far beyond the
four walls of 1985. I can take a jaunt around the yard or neighborhood, a trek to the mall, or trip across the
Not all the technological advances have been in medical equipment. My day begins on my memory foam mattress pad,
an great comfort improvement over the "egg crate" foam of the past. I move to my power wheelchair where I
sit on a glorified whoopee cushion. The technology behind pressure relief cushions has taken them to new levels of
comfort and pressure sore prevention. I can spend a 16 hour day sitting up, something impossible on a standard chair
cushion. The power wheelchair itself, although not a new invention, has benefited from technology and is now moved,
tilted, reclined, raised, and adjusted with computer technology that gives a greater level of independent operation
that is continually being improved upon.
In the bathroom I have another little gizmo that, although available for decades, has improved greatly in 20
years. The electric toothbrush is now battery operated, rechargeable, and as of 1987, has a much more effective
rotary brushing direction. Not an earth shattering breakthrough but definitely one that kept me dentally independent
much longer and now makes my care easier. Although I don't have one, many people with ALS use heated and padded
toilet seats with spray bottom washers and warm air dryers!
Throughout the day I am surrounded by other little gadgets that make my life easier. In the 1990s, when
semiconductors for emitting and receiving infrared radiation were developed, remote controls gradually switched to
that technology and the proliferation of remotes began. Remote controls are not just for TVs anymore! Stereo
systems, VCRs, garage doors and car doors have all gone remote -- and the remote craze hasn't ended there. Heaters,
fans, gas fireplace logs, lights, window shades, doors -- nearly everything can be put on a remote. Can't keep
track of all the remotes? Get a single programmable remote and teach it to do everything. Can't handle those
tiny little remote buttons? Get a remote with over size buttons. Can't handle buttons at all? Get a light
pressure switch and scanning device.
Safety has improved as well. Cell phones make family members reachable wherever they go. Emergency call buttons
summon help if we have fallen and can't get up. Chairs with lift seats reduce the risk of falls.
I end my day with a favorite invention that hit the market in the mid 80's. The simple invention of CDs has
been a daily joy for me. I love to read and when I could no longer turn book pages I began listening to books on
tape -- and dealing with hissing, snarling tapes and the headaches of rewind and fast forward and buttons I couldn't
push. CDs are a major improvement. Remote controlled multi disc players make books and music accessible far longer
than the tape deck of the 80's.
Gadgets like these simplify many things for the paralyzed, but for improvement in the quality of life nothing
tops the computer. I use it as a remote to control the TV, lights and anything else I can plug into an X-10 outlet.
I can use it to answer the phone, to speak words for me when my trach is cuffed and I can't talk, to play my
favorite music or movies. And all of this is done with glorious, delicious independence!
Beyond being an environmental control unit, my computer saves me from my worst fear, the mind numbing isolation
and boredom, the need to shut down my brain to preserve my sanity. I am occupied, distracted, entertained, informed,
and even productive thanks to my computer. Aside from the time-passing simple entertainment of computer games, I use
my computer to maintain records for our neighborhood association, retouch, restore, and print photos, design and
print flyers and cards, t-shirts, family photo CDs. I can't wield a paint brush or hammer but I have planned
projects from simply rearranging rooms to kitchen remodeling, deck design, and landscaping. Being able to see how
something will look before beginning has really helped overcome the hammer wielders resistance to doing things my
way. Power in decision making!
Not only have computers come a long way from the basic functions of my Apple IIe of the early 80s, handicapped
access to computers has evolved as well. Today I use Click'n'Type, and Dasher, two different type of
onscreen keyboards, to type without using my keyboard. Point'n'Click pushes the mouse buttons for me -- all
for free. As my ability to move the mouse to move the cursor deteriorates, I can go to a device that moves the
cursor by following slight movements of my head. A step up from that are devices that track eye movements to move
the mouse. The very latest technology is a page right out of science fiction. Computers can now be operated by
thought! This technology is in very early development but is already being used and holds promise for the
I had to stop working in 1995, coincidentally the same year that AOL gave access to the new and developing World
Wide Web. I had dabbled with the Internet previously but it wasn't until the Web arrived that I found being
online to be useful. In just a few years the Web exploded from a few websites to a massive source of information,
entertainment, communication, and commerce. Today I read newspaper and magazine articles (replacing the printed
versions I can't manage), use the Internet as a giant encyclopedia to research any topic, comparison shop and
sometimes buy, select books on CD to be reserved or renewed for me at my local library, keep in touch with family
and friends via email, and keep informed about ALS and communicate daily with others with ALS.
The greatest reward I get from my computer and the Internet is that it isn't a one-way street. I can give as
well as receive. My involvement with ALS groups online lets me share my hard won knowledge of ALS with others. I
have been able to put up a personal website to relay my nursing information about ALS. I get great personal
satisfaction from this technological ability to help others and have even made my first venture into designing a
commercial website. (The heck with personal satisfaction -- I could even make money designing websites!)
Speaking of money, obviously all these tech gadgets aren't free. The medically necessary ones are covered by
insurance and Medicare, but the convenience ones are not. Just as when grocery shopping, I compare prices, wait for
sales, look for used equipment locally and on eBay. Having had 20 years to accumulate my ”toys" -- and
upgrade them! -- has certainly been a perk not many with ALS have, but I have learned that the expense is far
outweighed by the quality of life these things give me and the help they give my caregivers.
There isn’t a day that goes by that I don't use several things that were not available when I was
diagnosed with ALS in 1985, and not a day that I don't think how lucky I am to have ALS today instead of before
technology contributed to these advances "around" ALS.