A Student Design Project With a Real-life Application

Former Shepherd patient hopes to get a boost from tailored technology that could one day return him to his career as a surgeon.

Garrett Cuppels, M.D., was in the prime of his life. At 35, he was an avid runner, surfer, sailboarder and saltwater fisherman. He was also an up-and-coming orthopedic surgeon practicing in Delray Beach, Fla. He loved caring for his patients and tried to approach each case with empathy.

I remember when I was an attending at the VA, I had to amputate a diabetic patient’s gangrenous leg below the knee,” he recalls. “I met with the family prior to the procedure, and they could see I was tearing up. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, but it ultimately would save his life.”

Dr. Cuppels faced his own tragedy in 2010 when he sustained a complete T-10 spinal cord injury (SCI) in a fall. Paralyzed from the waist down, he suddenly found himself a patient.

After completing his rehabilitation at Shepherd Center, Dr. Cuppels was eager to return to work. But, even though he had full use of his upper body, he says the orthopedic practice that hired him told him they could not keep him on after his injury.

When I was recovering, I assumed my job would be waiting for me, but they didn’t accept me back,” says Dr. Cuppels. “I told them ‘My hands and my head still work,’ but they had already decided, so I had to start looking for a job.”

At a crossroads, Dr. Cuppels not only faced the challenges of adjusting to everyday life, but his life’s work and passion suddenly seemed beyond his reach. However, the kindness and ingenuity of a few strangers soon would help change this.

In the doctor’s quest for job prospects, a team of biomedical engineering students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison heard about his story. They decided to take on Dr. Cuppels’ case and build what they call a standing paraplegic, omni-directional transport, or SPOT device.

We are trying to give Dr. Cuppels his life back,” says researcher James Madsen. “Getting him back into the operating room will make a huge difference for his wellbeing and sense of independence.”

They believe their one-of-a-kind design will allow Dr. Cuppels to safely and comfortably maintain a standing position so he can again move quickly and precisely during surgical procedures.

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