BRYAN CLARK Spirit Staff
BUNKER HILL – Robert Thornton may not fit the stereotypical image of an inventor: he doesn’t wear a white lab coat, and he didn’t graduate two years early from MIT. But several stroke survivors say that a sling he invented to alleviate his partner’s pain is helping them to recover from a debilitating condition.
Thorton and his girlfriend, Sharon Baker, had been together for two years when she awoke and slowly realized that something was wrong. She walked to the bathroom and suddenly fell to the floor and found that she couldn’t get back up.
“I reached up to the sink and tried to pull myself up,” Baker recounted. “And then I realized that wasn’t going to happen. I couldn’t use my left side.”
“I pushed the door open,” remembers Thornton, “and I knew something was wrong. So I hollered to my brother to call 911.”
After a frightening stint in the hospital’s intensive care unit during which doctors were unsure if Baker would ever recover her brain function or even live, her condition slowly stabilized.
But Baker’s stroke left her suffering with a condition called hemiparesis, the partial paralysis of the left side of her body. And, as do many sufferers of hemiparesis, she was stricken with a condition known as subluxation – a persistent dislocation of the shoulder due to weakening of the muscles that hold the joint together.
“Your humerus is totally dislocated from your socket. There is like a three-finger gap,” Baker explained. “It is a horrible pain.”
Baker then began the long, painful process of physical therapy with the hope that she could regain some function on her left side. But the subluxation of her shoulder made the exercises painful, sleep impossible and kept her on a regular regimen of heavy-duty pain medicine.
Thornton became Baker’s full-time caregiver. He noticed that when the physical therapists came to work with her, they were able to push her upper arm back into the shoulder joint which would relieve her pain and allow her to do simple exercises.
“So I asked them why they didn’t just put a sling on there that would hold it into place so they could work it,” he said. “They said that they don’t make any that work.”
Thornton points out that there are several slings produced for people suffering from Baker’s condition, but that all have important flaws. One model provides a grip that the wearer can push down on that will keep the shoulder in joint for as long as they keep pushing. Another immobilizes the arm and pins it to the body.
Thornton, who had worked many years as a mechanic, thought he could do better. “Everybody else though you had to either strap it to your chest or strap it around your neck. The doctors don’t want that. They don’t want pressure on the neck, and they want the arm to be mobile.”
“All my life I made things,” Thornton said, explaining that his years of building automobiles and custom parts had prepared him for the task. “You see what it needs to do, and you do it.”
Thornton designed an elegant solution to the problem. His sling uses two cuffs attached to the biceps that are linked with three straps that run along the back. Both arms remain mobile while the affected shoulder is pulled back into place.
When she tried out the prototype sling, Baker says the effect was dramatic.
“From the moment it was put on, the pain was gone,” Baker said. “I was off of painkillers after two weeks of using it.”
The sling has not yet undergone controlled clinical trials, but other subluxation sufferers who have tried it echo her sentiments.
Mike Weland, the publisher of News Bonners Ferry, a newspaper in Idaho, suffered a similar stroke at around the same time as Baker. In an article he wrote about the sling, he said he found Thornton’s device online and placed an order in September.“Within two days, the pain was reduced almost entirely, and I let all my ‘strokie’ friends on the Internet know.”
A number of testimonials found on Thornton’s website give further anecdotal evidence of the slings effectiveness.
Thornton says he has so far sold 10 of the slings – and donated an additional 200 – to subluxation sufferers around the world. “People will contact us who can’t afford to buy one. Whenever we find someone who can’t afford one and is suffering, we send one right out to their rehab center.”
Thornton says he is currently working to build a “crowd funding” site that will allow a large number of people to make small donations that will go toward providing slings to stroke victims who cannot afford the $89 pricetag.
He is also looking for an investor to provide the capital to pay the large fees required by the Food and Drug Administration and the American Medical Association before those agencies will grant the sling their approval.
“Our biggest roadblock is all the money they want at each step,” Thornton said. “We want to reach as many people as we can as fast as we can.”