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Woman Unable To Speak Uses Computer to Communicate

December 24, 1985

HYANNIS, Mass. (AP) _ Myrtice L. Fuller talks to people by moving an eyebrow, not as a disdainful gesture but to activate a computer that prints out her words or speaks through a synthesized voice box.

The 74-year-old retired Yarmouth nurse has been afflicted for six years with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. She refuses to give in to the illness that has robbed her of every voluntary muscle except those that surround her eyes.

″Too often those who have serious speech defects are patted on the head and filed neatly away,″ Miss Fuller recently typed on her computer for an interview with the Cape Cod Times of Hyannis.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a neurological disease that affects one or two out of every 100,000 people. Miss Fuller was diagnosed as having the disease in 1979.

″With Myrtice, it started with a dragging of her foot,″ said Janet LeShana, Miss Fuller’s nurse. ″In 1983, she was bedridden. First her speech started to go; now it’s gotten to the point where it’s affecting her swallowing.″

Susan Swanson, a speech therapist with the Visiting Nurse Association of Central Cape Cod, started seeing Miss Fuller in March 1984. As her speech worsened, Mrs. Swanson contacted SHARE, a nonprofit group founded to develop communication systems for the disabled.

The computer was designed by Lester Cory and Philip Viall, professors at Southeastern Massachusetts University in South Dartmouth. It has a voice box and a printer so Miss Fuller can either ″speak″ or write. If she chooses to ″speak,″ a synthesized male voice pronounces the words she types.

Miss Fuller wears a headband with an electronic switch just above one eyebrow. Connected to the apparatus is a small television screen, where a cursor moves over a list of letters.

Whenever the cursor lands on a letter she wants, Miss Fuller moves her eyebrow. If she is a fraction of a second too early or too late, she misses that letter and has to wait until the cursor comes back for another sweep.

″She’s probably one of the most patient patients I’ve every had,″ said Ms. LeShana. ″To be so bright and intelligent, it must be awfully difficult to not be able to move or talk.″

Cory and Viall customized Miss Fuller’s computer with a list of words and phrases that she commonly uses. She can ask for an extra pillow or a bedjacket with one movement of her eyebrow, but to write a note is painstakingly slow.

″Have spent 46 years in hospitals of different types,″ she wrote for her recent interview. ″Have had to communicate effectively. Loss of speech in any form was devastating. The computer has been a blessing.″

Miss Fuller, who spent 22 years at Newton-Wellesley Hospital where she directed both the nursing staff and the nursing school, said she does get frustrated at times by the pace.

In one note she wrote:

″One day several weeks ago I was feeling depressed and sorry for myself. It went like this: Why did this happen to me. I don’t deserve this. This went on for 14 minutes when suddenly the thought came to me that if I had (not had) this, Gertrude and I would not have met Janet (LeShana). Immediately, I felt better both physically and mentally. How about that?″

Gertrude Hendricken, a nursing colleague, and Miss Fuller share a house they bought in this Cape Cod town in 1974.

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