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Dad's paralysis inspires son's ingenious endeavor

A University of South Florida senior designs the Tank to help his disabled father get back on the beach and more.

Published June 20, 2005

TAMPA - The father can barely talk to the son. He grunts his words over and over until he is understood. He sits in a wheelchair, his arms shriveled and his ankles purple from lack of activity.

He lives in a Venice golf course community, five minutes from the beach. But he can't even go in his back yard.

His muscles are dying. And so is he.

The son remembers how his once-vibrant father ran 3 miles every other day, golfed, sailed and went scuba diving. They'd fix cars and boats together. He is about to graduate college and start his own life, and he can do nothing for his father but make every day count.

But earlier this year, his senior year at the University of South Florida in Tampa, he gets an assignment in an engineering class. He must make something mechanical to help a disabled person.

And he thinks of his father.

And what he has lost.

And he has an idea.

* * *

Travis Watkins, 25, grew up mostly in Maryland just outside Washington, D.C., where his father, Jim Watkins, worked for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and before that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Jim Watkins built buildings and other things, including a weather monitor that today resides at the South Pole.

Travis was born into a family of engineers.

His father was a mechanical engineer. His grandfather was a chemical engineer. Two of his cousins are engineers. And now Travis is about to become a mechanical engineer.

His mother, Vicki, said he seemed destined for it even as a child. He'd smash open his toys and figure out how they worked.

Once when he was 10, he removed the wing-flap controller on a model airplane to create a remote-control light switch so he could turn his light off and on without getting out of bed.

Travis' father moved to Florida after he was diagnosed with Lou Gherig's disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). It is a debilitating disease that attacks motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord, eventually stopping them from sending impulses to the body's muscles. People with ALS typically lose their ability to move, speak, eat and breathe while retaining their mental abilities.

Jim Watkins first noticed it one day in 1997 when he was working on his boat. He couldn't grasp a tool. The muscle between his thumb and forefinger had atrophied. Six years ago, he left his job. Three years ago, his speech started to go and now - unless he is grunting to family members - he speaks using a computer that recites what he types in a computer voice. Two years ago, he started using a power wheelchair and a walker.

"I look at him today and I hope he stays how he is and gets better, knowing in my head that's not going to happen," said Travis Watkins. "It's going to get worse and worse."

* * *

In his engineering class, Travis decided to forgo the list of ideas his professors had for a design project and come up with his own.

He remembered how much his 57-year-old father loved the outdoors, and the beach. How that had been taken away from him now that he was in a wheelchair.

What if he came up with an attachment to his father's wheelchair that would give him all-terrain capability so he could maneuver his wheelchair on the beach?

He posed the idea to two of his classmates, who would be working with him on the design project.

"We thought it was a good idea, but we did have some problems," said Robert Burn, 24. "Considering we were not building a whole new power unit, we were not sure if it could run off the power of the wheelchair."

They worked back and forth on a design and finally came up with something, which they took to their professors. The parts cost more than $3,500, and the students' professors agreed to fund it.

"I was quite surprised and emotionally touched when (Travis) told me he was going to design and build something for me," Jim Watkins said on his computer. "I hadn't expected that he would build a device that would allow me to take my wheelchair over rough terrain, anywhere I wanted to go."

The students worked 10 to 20 hours a week on the 150-pound attachment while going to classes. They were so excited, they finished it early, said John Hopkins, 24, another student who worked on the project.

Travis called it the Tank, because it is rather large, about 5-feet by 5-feet.

Here's how it works: The power wheelchair locks into place on top of a frame on wheels. The wheelchair's wheels spin a series of rollers on the frame. These rollers set in motion an assembly of sprockets attached to a chain, which powers the all-terrain wheels beneath the frame.

Travis and his classmates got an A on the project. He is attempting to redesign it a little so it uses less power from the wheelchair and moves slower than its existing high speed of 3 mph. Eventually he'll give it to his father.

"Since we live in a golfing community, I would be tempted to take it out across the fairways and through the sand traps, but I don't think the club managers would be too thrilled," joked Jim Watkins in an e-mail. "I look forward to taking it on the beach, chasing some sea gulls and maybe a few sunbathers."

In the meantime, Travis, who graduates in August and has a job interview later this month at a Honda research plant in Ohio, has applied for a patent.

His professors think he and his classmates might have something marketable.

"Certainly it's one of the more challenging projects," said Stephen Sundarrao, 37, one of Travis' professors. "Many of the projects are not ready to be launched by the end of the semester. This one is really well-built and really well-designed. The thing that will make it successful is a good marketing plan."

Sundarrao thinks the Tank would work well for beachfront hotels and parks as something that disabled people could rent. The school has given Travis some contacts to get investors interested in manufacturing it. There are other all-terrain wheelchairs on the market, but Travis and his professors think this is the only attachment created for someone with a power wheelchair.

One day last week, Travis' father took it out for a spin. Travis had to lift his father onto the wheelchair on top of the frame, but eventually he hopes to give it a built-in ramp. Jim Watkins then gave it a test drive outside Travis' engineering lab, across some tall grass and past a rock garden.

The boulders, placed at different intervals, each had one word on them that together said:

"Don't ignore the small things - the kite flies because of its tail," Hawaiian proverb.

[Last modified June 20, 2005, 01:35:17]

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