Shower safety — Student Veteran Entrepreneur

Shower on two legs left Simonti making a presentation at a conference. Right a biker working in a shop and image of prosthesis prototype

Showering on two Legs – Luxury or Necessity?

Trying to shower safely is the single worst part of my day, every day.” Frank Jones, a motorcycle mechanic who had one leg amputated in 2009 as a result of complications due to a 1993 motorcycle accident, has managed quite well in working around living without the lower half of his right leg. He has run several businesses, rides motorcycles and is an expert in troubleshooting mechanical problems in all types of vehicles. One activity he’s never adjusted to is taking a shower safely. Not a fan of using a shower seat, Frank gets into the shower by sitting on the edge of the bathroom sink, placing his intact left leg into the shower, and pushing himself up into a standing position. During that transition he is off balance and unsafe. Two decades of showering this way put intense stress on and caused damage to his left hip joint, not to mention the injuries he sustained by falling numerous times in the shower.

Enter 23-year Navy veteran Michael Simonetti, or “Simo,” another avid motorcycle enthusiast. As a way to explore ways to help other veterans after his retirement from the military, Simo enrolled in the Master of Science in Rehabilitation Counseling program at San Diego State University and received the Certificate in Rehabilitation Technology. The Certificate is a collaboration between the Department of Administration, Rehabilitation, and Postsecondary Education (ARPE) and the College of Engineering. Simo’s background in art, his mechanical abilities honed in the Navy and his innate creativity and desire to help others were a perfect match for pursuing the Certificate as an area of specialization in the masters degree program.

For his initial project in the Certificate program, Simo talked with Frank about how he might benefit from the use of assistive technology. They came up with a number of concerns to explore, and since Frank was willing, they started with an assessment. The Matching Person and Technology (MPT) assessment (Scherer, 2005) is a good fit for rehabilitation counselors to determine if an assistive technology device is likely to work for an individual. The MPT uses a “person-centered approach” placing the AT user as the driver of the process. Simo learned quickly that Frank was definitely in charge of determining the best possible solution. Anything had to be better than what he was currently doing, but it had to be a resolution he was comfortable with, provided total stability and, most importantly, would be easy to use. Together they explored what might be possible by researching solutions that had worked for others.

Determining that nothing suitable was available, they got their first inspiration from a quad cane, which has four “toes” for balance. Simo and Frank then developed a prototype for a “shower foot” prosthetic providing the same non-slip stability and could be attached and detached easily. The more they worked with it, the more excited they became with the possibilities. Completing the course project under the direction of engineering professor Dr. Andrew Szeto, Simo and Frank considered the next steps for turning the prototype into a viable product. Simo then approached his academic advisor, Dr. Caren Sax, for advice on how to take the project to the next level. Simo and Dr. Sax met with SDSU’s Lavin Entrepreneurial Business Center’s Executive Director, Dr. Alex DeNoble, who opened the door to apply for the Zahn Innovation Platform Launchpad (ZIP) whose mission is to help SDSU students, faculty and staff launch startups. Simo applied and was accepted, beginning his steep learning curve regarding bringing a product to market and all that’s involved with getting it to that point.

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Fifteen months later, the latest all stainless steel prototype, now with five toes for added stability, will stand up to the shower environment and ensure solid support for the user. They applied for and were granted a patent for the device and are continuing their research by talking to other amputees for their feedback. The other exciting development came in the design of the “lightning disconnect” enabling the user to connect and disconnect the “shower safe base foot” quickly and without the use of any other tools. Adapted from hardware used on helicopter artillery Simo remembered from his time in the Navy, the new disconnect could have a variety of uses, including a way for triathletes to quickly switch out their prosthetic legs for biking, swimming and running.

Simo and Dr. Sax recently presented the device at the RESNA Conference in New Orleans where they received many compliments as well as some constructive feedback. The possibilities are exciting. With a population of more than 1.5 million amputees in the US, the largest proportion being lower limb amputees, the shower foot can help many individuals who want to stand on two feet again to shower. The device is simple, solid and safe, providing a low-tech solution in a high-tech world. Simo and Frank are interested in getting the shower foot to as many people as possible for the lowest price to ensure all who would like the device can afford to buy it. They are in the process of getting FDA approval and would love the Veterans Administration to make it available for veterans.

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by Caren L Sax, EdD, CRC

Professor/Chair, Department of Administration, Rehabilitation
and Postsecondary Education San Diego State University

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