The news seemed like a death sentence: In 1998, Anne Dunlap, a pretty young woman in Delaware, suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car crash, severely impairing her daily functioning. Even with physical therapy, she struggled to juggle multiple basic tasks at one time. Walking while talking, for instance, had to be slowly relearned during 16 years of lessons at a clinic.
At least, that is, until Cole Galloway, a professor in the physical therapy department at the University of Delaware in Newark and the inventor of the GoBabyGo cars for disabled children, talked with Dunlap about what she wanted. “I was in a room with Anne and a bunch of other therapists,” Galloway tells NationSwell on a recent afternoon as he strolled the campus. “Someone asked her, ‘Hey, Anne, what would you like to do?’ She said immediately — she’s a very fashion-oriented kid — ‘Oh, I want to be in sales. I want to work at a mall.’”
Everybody in the room had heard this answer before and moved on, as it was just another routine blank to fill in. But Dunlap’s wish caused Galloway to wonder: Could physical therapy based in real-world actions — not exercises in an antiseptic rehab clinic — improve recovery time? To test his theory, he invented a harness system that could be rigged up on the ceiling of a small kiosk, giving Dunlap enough support to be fully mobile. Within a matter of weeks, the GoBabyGo Café opened. Dunlap’s new physical therapy regiment involved scooping ice cream, making coffee and taking cash at the pop-up store’s register.
“We’ve spent hundreds of millions on rehabilitative robotics, but very few, if any, have ever jumped out of the lab and into the community. That’s how difficult it is to design rehab technology for the real world from within the traditional lab,” he declares. “We have to look at things that have never been considered: aesthetics or performance in the real world. We should be going to Starbucks and asking, ‘What do you need to work here?’ then build a design to allow someone to serve a latte while standing, work on their arm or hand function. That’s the new engineering feat: to build laboratory-grade change in the real world.”
At the GoBabyGo coffee stand, the aroma of freshly ground espresso beans hovers in the air as employees hand out single and double scoops of vanilla, butter pecan and black raspberry ice cream. The only thing setting it apart from java bars at other college campuses? Its harness system, which looks like a four-poster canopy and is built with aluminum and steel bars. Following Galloway’s past success with low-tech materials (purchased from Toys ’R ’Us), he aimed for a model that could be cheaply reproduced.
“We’re working really hard to build stuff that’s simple,” Galloway says. “We prototype lightly so we can get it into the community and make it commercially available.”
An added feature of this system, like GoBabyGo’s cars, is its full-range mobility. Rather than limiting a person’s movement to one straight line, Dunlap is free to go in any direction within the enclosed 50-square-foot space, held up by the bars overhead. And the whole setup is portable, meaning it can be taken down from the science building’s lobby and reassembled anywhere.
“It’s very easy to move around in. It doesn’t feel like there’s any kind of drag, and the harness feels light when I’m moving,” Dunlap tells the Newark (Del.) Post. “I feel comfortable and liberated because I’m secure and protected, and I don’t have to worry about falling.”
Galloway, who got his start in physical therapy because he “loves movement” of all kinds — from the simple stuff like walking and sitting to ballet and gymnastics, hopes the harness system will have applications for people from all walks of life. Beyond physical therapy, the support system can assist anyone that needs extra support or balance, particularly children with developmental disabilities and the elderly. Serving as an interim device between relying on a walker and being confined to a wheelchair, the harnesses could be set up in school playgrounds, food trucks, family living rooms and workplaces.
Studies of GoBabyGo’s effectiveness are currently being funded by the National Institute of Health, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education. Yet Galloway describes himself as a “pretty reluctant researcher.” While his lab prefers to see his prototypes out in public, they know a device works when they hear both positive feedback from the people who need it and receive solid data from his lab.
“We see no reason to wait for years of research to tell you that [with this device] a person who can’t stand or walk on their own has the potential to actually work in a cafe,” Galloway says, “Especially when your grandma would say today, ‘That’s gonna work.’”
Dunlap will tell you the same thing. She’s confident in her progress, so much so that she recently went down to her favorite coffee shop — not for a latte, but to drop off a job application.