As a young Marine lay in the sand in Fallujah, his right leg riddled with bullets, an inventor in Naples puzzled over how to get paralyzed people out of bed. While the Marine fought strokes, coma and paralysis, the inventor worked with a Largo factory to build a prototype of a robotic scoop. He called it Angel Hands.
A few weeks ago, an Angel Hands — looking like big salad tongs — swung from the ceiling over the Marine's bed.
How Angel Hands got from the inventor's drawing board to the Marine's bedroom is a tale of terrible struggle, stubborn fortitude, and more than $1 million — as well as a "snook cook" and a gassy grandma.
• • •
The story begins with inventor Gary Kluckhuhn's car accident in 1996. A suicidal driver speeding the wrong way on Interstate 75 in Tampa caused a pileup that landed a tanker truck squarely in Gary's path. He ended up with multiple injuries, including a broken hip and several leg fractures.
During recovery at St. Joseph's Hospital, he dreaded being moved. Getting out of bed required a pair of hefty male orderlies. Gary felt as dehumanized as a sack of beets. He lay in bed thinking there had to be a better way.
A couple of years later, he was back on his feet. He stopped at a McDonald's. He ordered a milk shake and two straws.
He held the straws side by side and rolled them in his fingers. He wrapped each straw in a napkin and spun them again. The napkins were like conveyor belts, each turning the opposite way. His old idea about lifting injured people out of bed came back to him. He imagined his napkin conveyor belts as "hands." Those hands made two halves of a seat. The seat was attached to what looked like a ski-lift gondola.
He imagined the hands gently rolling under the legs of a quadriplegic, then closing and lifting. He imagined the gondola gliding on ceiling tracks to all parts of the house.
He almost forgot his milk shake.
• • •
Another story of injury began in 2007. Marine Lance Cpl. J.T. Doody had been in Iraq for three months. He was 24. His mother knew he was in a hot zone, Fallujah. On March 7, his birthday, he joked by phone that the enemy only fired over his head.
Two days later, they lowered their aim, and shot J.T. in the right thigh, then in the calf. As he crawled for cover, a machine gun opened up on him and one of those bullets hit his right shin and went up his leg.
J.T. survived the firefight, but his leg was shredded, the nerve to his foot destroyed. He ended up in a naval hospital in San Diego. They poured antibiotics into him, got him walking in braces. He took college classes off the base.
J.T. planned to leave the Marines and take up pre-law. He was upbeat and optimistic in his online journal:
"I feel lucky and blessed. … It doesn't matter that I might be considered 'handicapped' now, I was willing to give my life for my country, and I feel lucky that I still have that and my leg and will still be able to make a difference in this world."
It was his last journal entry. On Jan. 16, 2008, J.T. slipped into a coma.
His doctors discovered an undetected infection called endocarditis. It caused a bacterial mass to grow on the lining of his heart. The mass fragmented, and flakes of it traveled to his brain, triggering strokes.
His mother, Chris, started a vigil at J.T.'s bedside. Family members joined her. They talked to him about family news, sports, his injury. He didn't blink or move.
Everyone, even Grandma, crowded into his room to watch the Giants and the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Midway through, they noticed an odor. Chris assumed it was J.T.
"That was me."
The room exploded in laughs.
Chris saw J.T.'s mouth curve into a grin. She knew he was still in there.
The next day, she and her fiance, Bryan, married at J.T.'s bedside.
J.T. transferred to the Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa. Chris went with him. One afternoon in April, Chris tried to get J.T. to watch South Park.
J.T. blurted "No!"
It was his first word in four months.
"Say 'Mom!' " Chris cried.
• • •
Gary the inventor had started a group in Naples called the HALO Coalition to enhance housing and assisted living options for the handicapped. He had been working for a couple of years on Angel Hands. He had found two companies in Largo he hoped could turn his drawings into an actual machine.
One company was called Custom Mobility, owned by Bruce Bayes. It customizes wheelchairs for people with extreme disabilities.
Gary showed Bayes his drawings. "Can you make this?"
Bayes replied, "This is way over my head."
He took the inventor to a factory just down the street called Nautical Structures. It makes gigantic cranes and hoists for lifting yacht tenders and lifeboats. It actually once built a hoist to get disabled drugstore mogul Charles Walgreen aboard his yacht. Gary met owner Robert Bolline.
"This can't be built," Bolline pronounced. The gondola was too grandiose. The conveyor-belt "hands" looked more promising, but needed hundreds of hours of engineering. Bolline said he would take a pass.
Gary left defeated. But Bolline took a trip to Michigan to visit his stepmother, who works with disabled people. When he described Angel Hands to her, she got excited. She said hoisting people in slings was a remnant of the Dark Ages. He might transform nursing care if he could perfect Angel Hands.
Bolline changed his mind. He persuaded Gary to ditch the gondola and let his engineer refine the "hands." Gary swallowed his pride and turned over his designs. That led to two prototypes — costing over $1 million.
• • •
Gary approached the polytrauma unit's director, Dr. Steven Scott. He wanted him to see how Angel Hands could help his patients get out of bed.
Scott shrugged. He told Gary, "I got guys who don't care about getting out of bed."
They're mostly in their 20s. They'll live the rest of their lives in institutions, or, if they're lucky, at home with their mothers.
If Gary really wanted to help those men, Scott said, he would go find a reason for them to want to get out of bed.
So while work continued on Angel Hands, Gary organized a snook tournament in Everglades City for polytrauma patients mobile enough to get on boats. The snook they caught would be grilled for other patients at a "Snook Cook" on Sand Key.
They caught one snook.
To save the picnic, Gary bought grouper at the store.
At the cookout, he met J.T., only recently out of his coma. Gary asked to come see how he gets out of bed.
• • •
Picture J.T. when he came out of his coma and moved into his new home in Riverview. Picture him as he regained his voice, hoarsely telling his mother how he loved her.
It wasn't like that.
He had a temper and the vocabulary of a combat Marine. He stayed awake all night, calling for his mom. Water. Yogurt. Coffee. And there was nothing wrong with his hormones. When he dreamed, it wasn't about Iraq.
He displayed a quirky, sometimes shocking, sense of humor. As his night nurse fed him, he would say please and thank you. But when the meal was over, he would say, "Now, take off your clothes."
When Gary visited J.T., he videotaped Chris' struggles to get him out of bed. She would maneuver a portable hoist, roll J.T. over, unfold a sling under his back, then roll him again. She would wrestle him so he wouldn't hang lopsided. The process took about 10 minutes. It reminded Gary of what he went through after his car accident.
He went home to Naples and went to work with PVC pipe and a hula hoop. He designed a round "halo" that would attach to the ceiling, an improvement over the hoist. He designed a portable halo for the living room. He got Nautical Structures to make them out of aluminum.
J.T.'s home was ready for Angel Hands.
• • •
Chris and husband Bryan are still trying to find reasons for her son to want to get out of bed. He is just 26. His social world is 5 North, the floor at the VA where he lived for 10 months and where he still gets therapy three times a week. He's considered one of the lucky ones. He has parents and a home. But besides 5 North, his only other constant social connection is church.
Chris keeps a log of J.T.'s progress. Her latest, on June 27: "Two more huge improvements: He almost now has complete control of his left hand and fingers. He can open his hand and put it into a fist at will. He's even biting his fingernails!!"
J.T.'s voice and temper have softened. You never know what he'll say. Flirting with his stepbrother's wife, he asked her: "Why don't you lose the zero and go with the hero?"
Just a few weeks ago, an Angel Hands prototype hung from J.T.'s ceiling. It was the first test spin on an actual patient. A VA official was there to witness.
Robert Bolline, the man who lifts lifeboats, worked a control box that dropped the robotic hands on either side of J.T.'s hips. The little conveyor belts spun with a soft whir, and the hands slid under J.T.'s legs.
J.T. yelled, "Up, up and away!"
He was aloft, swinging toward his wheelchair.
Angel Hands' makers believe it requires a thousand more hours of engineering and a couple of more million dollars. They've approached the National Institutes of Health for a small business innovation and research grant. The goal is to develop a sleeker, smaller Angel Hands that J.T. and other disabled people can operate.
Then, when J.T. one day finds his own reasons for getting out of bed, he'll be able to do it himself.