NAPLES — Think of the millions of ways you move your body every day and then imagine that you can’t. You can’t get out of bed. You can’t walk to the bathroom. You can’t get yourself into a wheelchair.
That feeling of helplessness united Naples inventor Gary Kluckhuhn and Marine Lance Cpl. John Doody, who lives near Tampa.
About 13 years ago, Kluckhuhn, 63, nearly died in a car crash on Interstate 75. He was bedridden for weeks. To go to the bathroom, nurses wrestled his body into a fabric sling and lifted him like a sack of potatoes.
Today, Doody, who was injured in Iraq, deals with the same sack-of-potatoes moving technique six to eight times a day.
Kluckhuhn (pronounced “cluck-hoon”) recovered completely, but he never stopped thinking about that feeling of helplessness — and years later he invented a machine that he calls Angel Hands to lift and move people more comfortably. He has worked almost obsessively for more than a decade to get it made, tested and into the bedrooms of people like Doody.
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Usually when Doody went on foot patrol in Fallujah looking for insurgents, the shots flew over his head and the gunmen ran. Not this time.
Bullets pierced his leg and peppered the ground as he fell and tried to crawl away. Sand flew up and rained down, just as it does in movies. He still hears the staccato bursts of gunfire sometimes.
After his injury, Doody was treated for the gunshot wounds in his leg and released for rehabilitation. He started a legal internship, but one day he passed out at his desk. An infection had caused a stroke, damaging his brain and putting him into a coma.
“He was gone for about five months,” says Chris Ott, his mom.
“Basically dead,” Doody says. “Like a wet noodle.”
They tell the story rapid fire, back and forth and when Ott realizes that they’re finishing each other’s sentences, she laughs. “We’ve been hanging out too long,” she says.
“Yes, we have,” Doody says, smiling in her direction. He’s legally blind now, but he can see her silhouette and locate the sound of her voice and movement.
Today they’re together in the living room of their home in Riverview, which is southeast of Tampa. Doody’s wheelchair is pushed up to a bicycle-like machine with pedals that move his legs around. He can still feel his body all the way down to his toes, but he can’t move much below his neck.
Before her son’s injuries, Ott, 47, worked full time, and she and her husband lived in Idaho. But when a doctor in San Diego told her that the Tampa veterans’ hospital was the best one for her son’s treatment, the family moved to be near the hospital. Now she cares for him full-time. Getting from his bed to his wheelchair or to the bathroom by himself is impossible, so six to eight times a day, his mom wrestles his 190-pound body — which is much bigger than her small, 125-pound frame — into the sling lift.
“The sling scrunches up his body and it’s uncomfortable,” Ott says.
“It rides up my crotch,” Doody says.
This is what Kluckhuhn wants to change.
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Angel Hands has taken over Kluckhuhn’s life. Ask him a question and he’ll explain minute details in words you probably won’t understand: gantry cranes and twin-roller, conveyor-belt systems, patient-safe handling and zero sheer.
The machine has two parts: the Angel Hands lift, which looks like a cross between a chair and a ski-lift gondola; and the Halo, which is a metal ring about 3 feet wide on the ceiling that a straight track is attached to.
Say you’re John Doody and you want to move from your bed to the bathroom. Instead of wrestling your body into a sling, whoever is helping you picks you up by pushing buttons to control the machine.
With the push of a button, the chair’s two, clamshell-like hands slide under your bottom and because each “hand” has two conveyor belts running in opposite directions the surface never slides against your skin. You sit on the top conveyor belt and the bottom one moves along the bed.
After you’re in the chair, it moves along a track on the ceiling. The track is straight, but it’s attached to the circular ring called the Halo that allows the track — and with it, the chair — to move anywhere in the room.
Kluckhuhn worked as a builder and general contractor for decades, but connecting the dots from construction to Angel Hands is a convoluted story that starts with a failed senior-living project and ends with a company that builds luxury boat accessories.
In 1980, Kluckhuhn’s mother-in-law was ill and he bought land on Marco Island to build a senior retirement community. The project failed, but it was Kluckhuhn’s introduction to building for disabled or elderly people.
After he nearly died in the car crash, Kluckhuhn returned to school to study science and human services. Not long after, he developed the concept of Angel Hands, and an acquaintance introduced him to Bruce Bayes, a businessman in Largo. Bayes owns Custom Mobility and builds seating for disabled people. Bayes and Kluckhuhn started working together, but needed someone to build the machine.
That’s where Nautical Structures, a marine manufacturing company also in Largo, comes in. Today, Kluckhuhn owns 55 percent of Angel Hands and Halo; Nautical Structures president Bob Bolline owns 25 percent; and Custom Mobility’s Bruce Bayes owns 20 percent. Kluckhuhn says he has invested about $2 million in money and resources in the project.
There are still a lot of hurdles. It has to be tested on patients, pass an institutional review board and received Food and Drug Administration approval. Kluckhuhn says he has been discouraged, because it’s taken years to get a prototype built — and it’s not near perfect. But he’s also determined.
“With the freedom and independence that I enjoy sitting here and looking out that window and the lifestyle that I have, it is incumbent upon me to help those kids who have sacrificed their freedom and independence,” he says. “To help them have the technology to have that little bit of dignity restored.”
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Kluckhuhn calls them his test pilot flight squadron for Angel Hands.
They’re the guys he’s met through the Tampa veterans’ hospital who he wants included in the testing for his machine. John Doody is one of them, and they all have stories like Doody’s. Hit by a bomb while driving. Legs blown off. Eyes lost. Paralyzed.
When Kluckhuhn first approached the director of the poly-trauma center at the Tampa hospital about Angel Hands, he recalls that the doctor brushed him off.
“He said, ‘Your machine looks pretty neat, but let me tell you something, these guys I’m taking care of are so depressed that they don’t care if they get out of bed. Why don’t you do something to get them out of their depression?’” Kluckhuhn remembers.
After that conversation, Kluckhuhn started planning events for the disabled veterans at the hospital: Last year, he organized a snook tournament and cookout. This year, he expanded it to a weekend at a hotel on Sand Key in Clearwater. Doody went for a ride in the side car of a motorcycle, smiling wide and yelling, “I love my life!”
Kluckhuhn says he would like to get the machine into hospitals and institutions worldwide, and sell it to people who need it in their homes. It would be nice if he could make back the money he’s invested, he says.
Right now, the machine costs about $35,000 to produce, he says. The partners lent the first Angel Hands prototype to John Doody until the machine is available for purchase. The veterans hospital purchased the equipment to build the Halo and ceiling track in his bedroom.
American flags and Marine paraphernalia decorate the walls of Doody’s bedroom, and medicine cabinets hang on either side of his hospital bed. One holds medicine and supplies, and the other bottles of cologne and deodorant.
Ask him what he likes to do — go to the beach? Watch TV? Fish? — and he and his mom start laughing.
“He likes to fish for girls,” Ott says, and Doody nods. He has a serious crush on a particular physical therapist, but she doesn’t work with him anymore.
“She’s gorgeous,” he says. Working with the new one, a man, is “less fun.”
Doody is excited to have Angel Hands in his bedroom because it will mean more freedom, he says. Right now, the chair lift is in the shop at Nautical Structures, but Doody and his mom use the Halo and ceiling track six or eight times a day. When the chair part is ready, they’ll use it, too.
They want to build a voice-activated Angel Hands so that Doody can call it to his bed to pick him up, Ott explains.
“We need to give this kid back his independence,” Ott says. “It’s no fun sitting there in poop because there’s no choice right now. ... The (track) goes all the way into the bathroom and the Angel Hands will eventually be able to just set him down on the toilet.”
One day, she hopes to see her son standing in a harness attached to the ceiling-anchored track — supported by it so he can walk around the room. And if Doody and Ott want to do it, you can bet that Kluckhuhn will do his best to figure out how to build the machine for it.
“I’m going to recover all the way,” Doody says.
“The doctors, we don’t listen to them, because it’s up to the man upstairs,” his mom says.
“Yes, it is,” her son replies.
* To learn more about John Doody visit www.helpjt.com and to learn more about Angel Hands visit www.angelhandslift.com