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Minnesota Veteran With ALS Learns To Drive Wheelchair With His Eyes

10November 2021

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Ahead of Veterans Day, a new piece of technology is unlocking possibilities for Minnesota veterans with degenerative disease diagnosis.

Vietnam veteran Dean Duffield is at the Minneapolis VA Hospital for a tune up. His power scooter does what his body no longer can, though driving with his left-handed joystick is also becoming a challenge.

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“I’ve gotten to the point now where my hand still works if it’s below my waist,” Duffield said.

And his right hand doesn’t function at all.

“It would be a lot easier if my legs had gone first instead of my hands,” he said.

Duffield found out about his ALS a decade ago.

“It’s just been a slow deterioration from there,” he said.

Kristin Scheel is an occupational therapist at the VA.

“We get the chance to really get to know our ALS patients really well and on a personal level because we’re seeing them so often, and dealing with such really emotional and sometimes really difficult, difficult things,” Scheel said.

Dean Duffield (credit: CBS)

His next option for driving the chair independently will be by foot.

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“Sort of reminds me of using a skid loader,” he said.

And when that option fades away, his eyes will not only be his windows to the world, but his tools to move through it.

The Ability Drive is giving Duffield the ability to drive with a shift of the eye.

“They look through the screen at different arrows — forward, backward, left and right — and then they can drive using their eyes only,” Scheel said. “It allows somebody who previously may not have been able to drive at all or get around in their community or even their house to all the sudden have this independence to be able to move around.”

Duffield is both a fast learner, and a good sport.

“As you can tell from Dean, it’s very taxing. It gets really tiring on your eyes,” Scheel said.

Tired eyes, but a sliver of optimism that perhaps the next phase of his disease will still hold a kernel of independence.

“It just gives him a little bit of hope to kind of continue going,” she said.

While this technology is primarily being used with ALS patients, it could also work for those with MS and spinal cord injuries.

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The wheelchair technology costs $6,500. The VA pays for it as long as it’s medically necessary.

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