As I left ST. Elizabeth’s hospital that morning I had a strange sense of profound satisfaction. It was the first time I had ever designed and built something for someone who was so in need. It was gratifying. It was very exciting for me to see that someone could benefit so greatly from a product the I developed. I never experienced anything like this before.
Up until now, most of my inventions consisted of civil engineering software that would allow us engineers to convert pristine old growth forests into shopping centers and neighborhoods, faster. Now, I was no longer designing software to pave paradise (to borrow a line from Joni Mitchell); I was truly helping mankind, or at least one-man, kind of, Herb Smith. Cool!
I then returned to Alpha Computers and the day-to-day grind of selling computers to first time buyers and never really realized the path I happened upon and how this one event would change my life forever. Last year I wrote two books; Gratuitous Serendipity and Life Is But A Dream. Both books are connected but different in nature. GS is about just some of the very unusual Forrest Gump-like events that happened throughout my life, while LIBAD is more spiritual in nature and embraces the concept that life is like the nursery rhyme “Life Is But A Dream”.
Row, row, row your boat;
Gently down the stream;
Merrily, merrily, merrily;
Life Is But A Dream.
Life really is like that. Even with your best plans for it, life seems to always take you in the direction you are supposed to go, not necessarily where you wanted to go. Sometimes you have to when it’s happening and stop rowing against the current and “Row you boat, gently down the stream.” Both of these books are available on www.LonSafko.com Products or Amazon.
I didn’t know my life had changed course that day. I put all of the design documents, software, and hardware in a box, put a cover over them, and placed them in the closet of my spare bedroom. Over the next month I gave little thought to this project again. It was cool, I helped someone, and that was that. And, as you know how life works, that wasn’t that.
It was about a month later in mid-March of 1986 that I got that call. My secretary told me that she had Nurse Stump, Director of the Disability Department for St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Yakima on the phone and that it was urgent. I suddenly became scared. What happened? Did something go wrong? Did Herb die? Did I kill him? I could hear my heart pounding in my ears as I raced across the sales floor to grab the phone.
I introduced myself and Nurse Stump said “You better get up here as quickly as you can.” I asked why and all she would do is repeat the same thing “You had better come up here as quickly as you can.” Oh man, I did do something! What now!
I told my secretary to watch the sales floor and lock up at 5:00 PM as I threw my store keys across her desk. I told her I needed to go to Yakima, now! As it was an hour and a half each way, I knew I wouldn’t return in time to close the store and, I didn’t know what to expect when I got there.
I jumped into my little Chevy S-10 pickup truck and raced up I-82 headed out of Kennewick for Yakima, Washington. I didn’t knowing how fast I had been racing until the Washington State Police pulled me over about half way there and cited me with speeding. Then I knew exactly how fast I was going. What a day! I think I killed someone and I got a speeding ticket!
I pulled my truck into the hospital parking lot, threw the shift lever into park and ran into the disability wing taking two or three steps at a time until I was on the third floor. I ran down the corridor to the nurse’s station and there was Nurse Stump, looking sullen. Sullen isn’t a good look in a hospital.
Out of breath, I asked her “WHAAAAT?!”, “What happened!” All she would say is “You need to go to Herb’s room.” and pointed down the hall. I instantly thought of the scene from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol when the Ghost of Christmas Future pointed to the headstone with Ebenezer’s name on it. I was a scared as Ebenezer was.
As I walked towards Herb’s room I was terrified as to what I might find there. With each step my heart pounded louder and louder. I reached the door to Herb room, but stood in the hall. I couldn’t go in. I was afraid to go in, afraid of what I might see.
After a few moments of gathering all of my thoughts and courage I burst into Herb room. It felt like a skydiver throwing myself from a plane at 10,000 feet. I walked over to Herb’s bed where I could only see the foot of the bed as my eyes were looking down at the floor. I slowly raised my head to make eye contact. As my eyes focused, I saw that the bed was empty. The hospital bed was empty and the blankets made.
I instantly knew what the implications of this were. A quadriplegic cannot leave his bed, especially as weak as Herb was. Often when they change the sheets they roll the patient to one side, make the bed, then roll them to the other edge and make the remaining side. Some hospitals will hoist the patient up in the air over the bed to make it, but the patient doesn’t leave the bed entirely.
There was only one conclusion that I could come to. Herb had died. They called me to come get the computer. It didn’t work. Herb had given up and got his wish of suicide. Herb was gone. I failed. And, now somehow, I was responsible for this.I began to tear up while my mind raced about what was going to happen next. What was I going to do? What could I say to help the situation? I slowly turned away from the empty bed to make my way down that long cold hallway to the nurse’s station to face whatever consequences awaited me. As I turned, through watery eyes, I could make out a shape behind the open door. It was someone in a wheelchair. It was Herb!
I slowly walked toward Herb wondering how he could be up and in his chair in his condition. As I approached Herb he pulled he hand from under the blanket he was wearing on his lap. His arm slowly rose towards me. I could see his hand clinched and fingers atrophied due his paralysis. He slowly raised his arm up and out to shake my hand, he smiled, and thanked me for saving his life!
As I froze there holding Herb stiff hand, a hand that the doctors told Herb and all of us would never move again, I heard sobbing coming from the hallway. It was Herb’s doctors and nurses who cared for him watching this event unfold.
I got down on my knees in front of Herb’s chair so I could make eye contact more easily with him and I took his arm and hand in both of my hands, held it there in space, and thanked him for what he had done for me. I couldn’t help myself from crying. All of us just stood there and cried for quite some time. When we were all able to regain our composure I found out what happened…
Nurse Stump didn’t want to ruin this surprise about the computer system actually saving Herb’s life over the telephone. She said she knew it would be something better experienced in person. I… Guess… So…!
It seemed that after I left that day a month earlier when I first trained Herb, he still wanted nothing to do with the SoftVoice system. He really had just made up his mind that he wanted to die. Every time the nursed pushed the bedside table with the computer on it over his bed, he would turn his head away as far as his neck muscles would allow. But, the nurses were persistent. They would leave it there and leave him there alone with the computer system on and ready to run.
The nurse explained that it took more than a week for Herb to acknowledge that the computer system was in front of him. Then one day from outside in the hall, the nurse heard Herb softly speak, then again. He was speaking to his computer. He was starting to use it. Within about 10 days, Herb was an expert at using the SoftVoice System. He got so good that the nurse would bring people by Herb room so he could show him what he could do just by talking to his computer. They even brought other quadriplegics into Herb’s room to show them that they too had hope.
About the second week Herb was using the system he got so good at it that he became frustrated with the speed of executing single computer commands one at a time though voice recognition. The nurse in charge explained that one afternoon she was peeking around the corner to check on Herb without disturbing him and she saw him forcing himself to raise his arm and control it enough to type the keys on the keyboard.
She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Herb was diagnosed as a C-3 quadriplegic like Christopher Reeves who was the last patient I got to work with. A C-3 Quad means that he broke the third cervical vertebrae in his neck. This is the bone protecting your spinal cord at the nape of your neck. Damage to the C-3 vertebrae basically stops all sensation and motion from your neck down. If you damage the C-2, one higher, you lungs and heart stop working and you die. So a C-3 injury is about the most severe spinal cord injury you can sustain and still live.
Although Herb was supposed to never move his arm again, he was so motivated to use the keyboard; he actually regained partial use of his right arm. He could actually type using the keyboard! None of us ever dreamt that a computer could also be used as a physically therapy device and give a C-3 the use of his arm back.
Herb continued to use his SoftVoice system over the next nine months of rehabilitation becoming better and better at moving his arm and using the keyboard. Later that year Herb was release from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital to start his new life.
Herb went back to work for the engineering company he had worked for before the accident and got his own condominium in Seattle. He was living on his own, making telephone calls, performing word processing, building spreadsheets, and was happy with hope and his new level of independence.
SoftVoice Saved Herb’s Life…
Bestselling Author & International Keynote Speaker
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