A newsmaker you should know: Though paralyzed, she is going on mind-control robotic 'adventure'
September 19, 2013 9:45 AM
By Shannon M. Nass
Three days a week, Jan Scheuermann of Whitehall travels to a laboratory in Oakland to participate in what she calls "her adventure."
Ms. Scheuermann, who has a degenerative spinal disease and has been paralyzed for 10 years, is a volunteer participant in a groundbreaking research project underway at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and UPMC that involves the use of a mind-controlled robotic arm.
In recognition of her contribution to medical research, Whitehall's mayor and council selected her as Citizen of the Year, a recognition that has been bestowed annually on Whitehall Community Day for the past 19 years. Jan Scheuermann Day was proclaimed at a ceremony held at Snyder Field Aug. 24. She was also recognized at a ceremony in Brennan Plaza.
"It was very humbling," Ms. Scheuermann said. "I am very honored, and it was very thrilling."
Her role in this medical miracle has been chronicled on "60 Minutes" on CBS and other national programs and publications.
Still, Ms. Scheuermann said she feels she doesn't deserve the publicity and honors she has received.
"To get honored and recognized for something that's been such a privilege to do, such fun, and so wonderful for me, it seems like too much reward," she said.
On Feb. 10, 2012, two quarter-inch square electrode grids, each with 96 tiny contact points were placed in the regions of Ms. Scheuermann's brain that would normally control right arm and hand movement. A few days later, the two terminals that protrude from her skull were hooked up to the computer.
That first day, she was able to move her arm, and by the end of the second day she said she was able to high-five one of the researchers.
"It was thrilling," she said. "I was gasping as I moved it for the first time."
Ms. Scheuermann goes into the lab three days a week for four hours at a time to help train the computer to respond to her thoughts. While she is enthusiastic and said she has fun in the lab, she admits that it can be arduous, especially when trying to work on a new task.
Sometimes, she said, she and the computer don't connect or she thinks too hard during the training.
Her participation in the study is for research purposes only; she was told at the beginning of the process that she would use the arm only in the lab.
"I did this so that ... someday people will be able to take them home," she said.
Ms. Scheuermann said she lives by the philosophy "you are more than the body you live in," and that being in the study has brought this home to her.
"It's changed my life," she said. "It's changed my whole outlook on who I am and what I can do."
It also provided the impetus to finish a book she had started writing immediately after she was diagnosed with her illness 15 years ago -- when she could still type. As her illness progressed, she said she put the manuscript in a drawer and forgot about it.
But, after getting involved with the study, she said she began working with her attendant and her daughter who retyped the manuscript. Last year, her comical murder mystery, "Sharp as a Cucumber," was published on Amazon Kindle.
She enjoyed it so much that she's working on her second book.
"It's given me such a feeling of accomplishment," she said. "That may have happened without this study, but it may not have happened so quickly."
Ms. Scheuermann said when she was first diagnosed with the disease, she was very depressed but she never asked, "Why me?"
"God gave me life and a wonderful life, but he never said, 'Jan, you're exempt from trials and difficulties,' " she said.
Though the disease may have robbed her of many of her physical abilities, it didn't rob her of her spirit. This is due, she said, to the love and support that she's received from her family, especially from her two children and her husband, Bob, with whom she celebrated 25 years of marriage in November. She also described her attendant who has been with her for 10 years as reliable and trustworthy.
"You count your blessings," she said. "I'm blessed to be able to take part in this study."