Louise Misner says her daughter’s “whole world is going to open up now,” because of new eye-gaze software that is letting her daughter communicate with more than just yes or no responses.
Misner spoke to reporters Tuesday morning at the Kings Regional Rehabilitation Centre in Waterville while her daughter, Joellan Huntley, laid nearby with the the technology hooked up at her bed.
A catastrophic brain injury suffered in a 1996 car crash left Huntley paralyzed and unable to speak.
Last Friday, her mother announced that Joellan had communicated with her on Christmas Day for the first time since the crash, beyond simple yes and no responses.
Misner said Joellan, now 37, used icons on a computer screen to communicate with her mother about the type of shirt she was wearing, and she’s sure that her daughter
will communicate more as she gets the hang of the technology.
“She knows now what she has to do,” Misner said. “She’ll just keep getting better and better.”
She said she never doubted the day would come that she could communicate with her daughter.
“Yes. I never gave up. We never gave up, her father and I.”
Amy Smith, a speech language pathologist with Nova Scotia Hearing and Speech collaborated with Diane Holmes, a speech language assistant who works at the rehabilitation centre, to find a system that worked for Joellan.
The work goes back many years, starting with using mirrors and pictures of her family to make
sure she could actually track objects with her eyes and knew what she was looking at.
“They then moved on to the basic eye-gaze system that involved selecting the words yes and no on a handmade item that offered each choice.
“To use an eye-gaze system like this (computerized system), there has to be certain amount of comprehension of what you’re doing, and attention to be able to focus on the screen,” Smith said. “All of that practise of focusing on pictures and the mirror and things like that led up to her success with this.”
Smith and Holmes started assessing different systems before choosing the one Joellan now uses about a year ago. They have been working with her and staff since then.
“She’s to the point now that we can usually just set up the system, make sure her eyes are (calibrated) to the system, and she can go from there,” Smith said.
Joellan can choose icons and words instead of being limited to yes or no responses.
“She has the autonomy to say what she wants, instead of just communicating through yes or no answers,” Smith said.
Joellan can currently choose from one of six icons on a screen, and has about 40 images and words that she uses right now.
“It’s a vocabulary. This is like learning a new language for Joellan,” Smith said. “It’s like learning any new language — you have to be immersed in it, you have to practise with it before you’re a proficient user.”
She said as they continue to use the system they’re looking to add items to the menus that Joellan may want to talk about.
Holmes has been employed at the rehab centre for 16 years, working on Joellan’s unit before getting involved with speech therapy.
She said the progress over those years has been “amazing.”
“I’ve always known that Jo has had something to say, and she had a personality you wouldn’t believe.
“All she had was a smile and a scowl and she was able to get the entire world around her to communicate with her. There’s nobody who works with Jo that would tell you that she doesn’t have huge personality.”
She said Joellan seems quite proud of her accomplishments.
“The breakthrough on Christmas was that they were able to do that on their own, and there were no professionals there to troubleshoot.”
Smith said the technology has been around for a number of years, but more so for controlling a computer or environmental controls in someone’s home.
Huntley’s family won a $1-million insurance settlement as a result of the crash, but by 2014they found themselves embroiled in a court battle with the province’s Community Services Department, which sought to claw back the money for past and future care costs.
An out-of-court settlement was reached in April 2015, after Joellan’s family argued they needed the money for care that included physiotherapy and special equipment that would add to her quality of life.