Diane Vitillo, MS, OTR, PTA, CAPS
I am a polio survivor. I’m also a dreamer. Perhaps that’s why over the last two decades in my career in the rehabilitation profession I have tried my best to develop innovative ways for my patients to complete meaningful tasks that are problematic for them due to their disability. Since I was 4 years old, I have not had the use of my right shoulder due to the effects of polio. As an inquisitive child, a blossoming adolescent, a young adult, and now an active senior, I have stockpiled an arsenal of strategies that have facilitated my life’s journey while living with a disability. As a therapist, I have shared many of these strategies with those under my care.
I’ve always had a dream of inventing something that could change the life of just one person. This is my story of how my dream, plus one challenge created a life changing moment in a patient’s life.
My career in the rehabilitation profession as both a Physical Therapist Assistant and an Occupational Therapist has given me the opportunity to work with clients ranging in age from birth to end of life – many of whom have personally touched my life. However, one in particular – a stroke survivor – gave me the opportunity to make a difference in his.
According to the National Stroke Association about 6,400,000 stroke survivors are alive today and about 795,000 people suffer a new or recurrent stroke each year (www.stroke.org). For a stroke survivor, the occupational performance area of lower body dressing, specifically independently donning an AFO (ankle foot orthosis) and shoes is quite daunting. Throughout my years of practice, when it came time to assist the hemiplegic patient with donning an AFO, I would often say (with some frustration in my voice…), “I wish someone would make something that would hold the AFO in an upright position so you could easily slip your foot into it before it falls over.”
One of my patients (I’ll call him ‘Joe’) was a 35 year old male who had a stroke which resulted in right hemiplegia. He lived alone and was determined to be totally independent with his dressing skills. Although Joe was making marvelous progress with his upper body dressing, he was unable to independently donn his AFO and shoe. In my experience, both physical and occupational therapists have found the task of donning an AFO with one hand to be a particularly problematic one. Joe was so determined to succeed with this task that he challenged me to make something that would help him achieve his goal. It was his challenge that re-ignited my dream to make something that could change someone’s life for the better.
I went home that evening and searched for items in my garage that could be used to keep an AFO in a stable position to allow placement of the foot using a one-handed approach. Lo and behold, I spotted a plastic mitre box (yes…that’s the box a carpenter uses to cut special angles in wood). It was light enough to easily maneuver; wide enough to accommodate Joe’s AFO; and its flat bottom would keep it stable during the donning process. With some minor adjustments made, I was excited that this first prototype would be successful.
The following morning, Joe arrived in the gym and I couldn’t wait to begin our training. While he sat in his wheelchair watching me, I demonstrated for him how to use the device using only one hand. While seated in a long-sitting position on the mat, I placed the adapted mitre box near my foot and positioned the AFO within the mitre box. I then used a leg lifter to lift and place my leg into the AFO. SUCCESS! Needless to say, I was thrilled and Joe couldn’t wait to try his luck at it. He was successful on his first attempt and his smile said it all.
On the days to follow, Joe and I discussed my plans to add another design feature to this device. The current design allowed the patient to donn the AFO while in a long-sitting position. But, what about the client who preferred to sit at the edge of the bed or in their favorite chair to donn the AFO? Back to the drawing board for me! I now enlisted the help of my husband (an engineer by trade and a skilled craftsman) to come up with a design that would allow the AFO to articulate from the originally designed long-sitting position to either a 90 degree or 45 degree angle, depending upon the client’s donning preference.
The design of this device evolved over many months of beta-testing a prototype (made from wood and PVC) not only with stroke patients but also with patients who had other medical conditions that necessitated the use of an AFO for safe ambulation.
My dream of becoming an inventor came true, but, more importantly, my dream of changing the life of just one person – Joe – became a reality.
Diane Vitillo, MS, OTR, PTA, CAPS (Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist) is the owner of Home Heart Beats, LLC and the inventor of The Original AFO Assist® (an ankle foot orthosis donning aid). Home Heart Beats, LLC provides evaluative home modification assessments for clients who wish to successfully, safely and comfortably age in place in their own homes.
To schedule a home modification assessment or find out more about The Original AFO Assist®, please email Diane@HomeHeartBeats.com or call 732-305-7689 or visit www.HomeHeartBeats.com.