Meredith, a five-year-old with a rare form of epilepsy, doesn't let her diagnosis stand in the way of her happiness.
"She's a very personable, smiling, energetic little girl that wants to interact with her world," said JeanMarie Florkowski, O.T.R, A.T.P., an occupational therapist and a member of the Assistive Technology team at Blythedale. "Unfortunately, she has to wait for someone to bring her somewhere to talk with her peers. It's really nice to be able to offer her a level of mobility where she can have control over where she wants to move, and where she wants to go. And you can see through her smile the confidence it brings her when she's able to drive."
Meredith is a patient at the Robert Stone Day Hospital and a pre-schooler at Mt. Pleasant Blythedale Union Free School District. She is unable to walk or talk and assistive technology is essential for her communication and mobility. She uses a 3-D printed handle for the joystick that has been adapted for her power wheelchair, and an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device. At first, she was only able to communicate on her AAC device through eye gaze technology. Meredith's manual dexterity has improved through occupational therapy, reducing her reliance on eye gaze.
"The first time she pressed a button and it was truly what she wanted, it was amazing. It was like hearing her voice," said Nicole Windisch, Meredith's mom.
Blythedale is one of a small number of hospitals across the country that has a full-time rehabilitation engineer on staff. Andres Guerrero, M.S.E., adapts devices, equipment and toys within Blythedale’s new Assistive Technology Innovation Lab to help children with special needs better access their environment, improve their communication, and increase participation in school. He works closely with Blythedale’s Assistive Technology team (which includes specially trained occupational, speech, and physical therapists) to identify the unique needs of Blythedale’s patients and strategize solutions to improve their lives.
Over the holidays, the Assistive Technology team collaborated to create a "Santa's Workshop", adapting toys and devices for the children at Blythedale. One of the devices was a Power Wheels Jeep.
"Normally these toys can be found in any toy store. We replaced all of the electronics inside and adapted it with a 3D printed switch and made it work similar to a power wheelchair," said Guerrero. "We use these devices as an early mobility device. Because it looks like a toy, it is really attractive for kids. For example, we make the 3D-printed switch look like a red ball. So when the child plays with it, the ball moves the entire Jeep."
Having this kind of motivation is crucial for children like River Omari Rivera. River was born severely premature and was diagnosed with bronchopulmonary dysplasia. River was discharged home from Blythedale's Infant and Toddler Unit in September and currently receives outpatient services at the Hospital. For River, who uses a lot of his energy to breathe, not having to press down on a pedal saves energy and motivates him to explore his world.
"Like all children, their main occupation in life is to play," said Florkowski. "It's incredible to watch how we can pair Andres' innovative solutions with the clinical needs of our children and offer them the ability to showcase who they are and really develop those skills they otherwise might not be able to if we weren't able to provide that extra support."
On January 11, Meredith turned five. Each year, Meredith's family would blow out her birthday candles for her. This year though, Nicole reached out to the Assistive Technology team to ask for another innovative solution. The team created a switch-adaptive fan that allowed Meredith to press a button and activate a fan to blow out the candles.
"It was a reminder for us for how little moments can have such huge meaning for both for the child and the family," said Florkowski.
As the majority of patients at Blythedale use some form of assistive technology, Guerrero is excited for the future of continuing to create solutions in the Innovation Lab.
"It's allowed me to create more equipment and better equipment for our patients," he said. "But it's not just about the space, it's about the ability to collaborate with students and other institutions. Now we have an entire hub to improve the lives of our patients."
Meanwhile, Meredith continues to thrive and open new doors thanks to her dedicated team and continued advances in assistive technology.
"We love Blythedale; it's amazing," said Nicole Windisch. "She's come so far with learning how to use the equipment. Here she has accessibility and she can learn, the way she deserves."