Sixty years ago, a high level spinal cord injury was often considered by society to be a career-ending catastrophe. Many SCI patients were left bedridden. Others suffered complications due to pressure sores, the result of being in a traditional wheelchair without frequent movement and weight shifts.
But Don Rugg, who was paralyzed in an automobile accident in 1954 shortly after his college graduation, didn’t let the challenges of his quadriplegia stop him. Instead, the young electrical engineer went on to receive a doctorate and worked for many years on faculty at the University of Denver’s Denver Research Institute, conducting classified research for the U.S. military. His projects included circuit design for missile controls and antenna design for VLF radio used to communicate with submerged nuclear submarines.
“There was nothing that could get in the way of what Don wanted to do,” says Michael Durham, Rugg’s former colleague and Craig Hospital Foundation board member. “Don took great pride in what engineers could do and the problems that they could solve.”
In the late 1950s, Rugg and colleague Bill Orr designed a reclining power wheelchair, a device that would become instrumental for the spinal cord injury rehabilitation program at Craig. It was patented in 1965. The “Independence” or the “Rugg Chair,” as it became known, featured a reclining mechanism that could be adjusted to any desired position between a substantially upright and a full reclining position without effort or physical shifting of the occupant in any way. According to the patent, the chair was constructed and arranged “to closely conform to natural body movement when being raised or lowered to the desired disposition and relation.” This reclining ability made it possible for Rugg to shift his position and work long hours in his laboratory without risking pressure sores.
While not widely commercially produced, the technology helped many other Craig patients. Falcon Manufacturing hand-built approximately 20 of the chairs, using motors and gear drive assemblies made from surplus WWII aircraft parts. Rugg and Orr were paid $25 per chair for use of the patented reclining mechanism.
“I’d stay still if it weren’t for this,” Rugg chair user Jeanine Dickerson told the Denver Post in the 1960s. “I can lie down, adjust my weight and move around in it.” Rugg and Orr also designed a hydraulic lift mechanism that allowed Rugg and his chair to be loaded and unloaded from a van. “Don and his chair weighed about 375 pounds. and I can tell you from personal experience that it was a chore getting him and the chair into a van without the lift,” says his nephew and ‘driver, loader, unloader and wheelchair repairman’ David Woods. “Modern vans use a very similar system.”
In the 1970s, Rugg also contributed to the development of an ocular controller. Patented in 1979, the Occucom was a microprocessor controlled communication system for individuals who do not have the ability to write or speak. The controller could read eye movement and translate the movement into action, controlling lights or appliances. It also could be connected to a printer or voice synthesizer allowing for communication. The project received funding from the National Institutes of Health to be tested with Craig Hospital patients.
Don Rugg and his wife, Melba, were always very supportive of Craig Hospital, forming a lifelong relationship with former Medical Director Dr. John Young, according to Woods. “They did many things for Craig over the years and were always available to meet with patients and offer encouragement to those who were injured as well as to their families.” Woods says. “She and Don were a formidable team.”
In memory of the couple, Michael Durham and his wife, Dr. Jan Durham, have donated $1 million to Craig’s Redefining ROI Campaign to name the Don and Melba Rugg Assistive Technology Laboratory in the new west building. The Durhams chose to name the assistive technology lab after the Ruggs as a way to honor their legacy and help inspire future patients. The lab was dedicated on April 11. In the new space, lab staff will teach patients how to use state-of-the-art equipment to be as independent as possible.
While he worked in the 1960s, Don used a harness that allowed him to move his shoulders to open and close a hook that held a pencil. “He had better penmanship than I had,” says Durham, “Once PCs and keyboards came about, there was nothing slowing him down.”
According to Michael Durham, technology is getting better and taking away limitations for people like Don Rugg. “From a pencil strap like Don’s to dictation software, technology is making physical limitations less and less of an issue.”
The Durhams hope that patients understand that the world is still wide open to them to do whatever they want to do following an injury. “Don wasn’t a handicapped person,” says Michael Durham. “He was just Don, a person who used a chair and truly made significant contributions to his field.”