A Freak Accident Shook a Family, and Changed a Career

James Sulzer's daughter was the very kind of patient he had been engineering for
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 24, 2021 2:50 PM CDT
A Freak Accident Shook a Family, and Changed a Career
A falling tree branch caused Livie's traumatic brain injury.   (Getty Images)

(Newser) – A freak accident in May 2020 changed the Sulzer family's life irrevocably. Just a week before Liviana "Livie" Sulzer's 4th birthday, a branch broke from a tree in her Austin, Texas, yard and crashed down onto her head. She lost consciousness, but as her father tells Daniel Engber for the Atlantic, there was no blood. "How bad could it be?" Very bad, it turns out. The injury and brain swelling she sustained was so extreme that, had she been an adult, the decision may have been made not to operate, the neurosurgeon who removed a piece of her skull observed. She spent two weeks in a coma, and woke unable to respond or speak. Weeks later, she began making "wounded, mouselike shrieks." The family lays bare their efforts to help their daughter since—unusual in this case, because this is no usual family.

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Mom Lindsay is a bioengineer who specializes in regenerative medicine; dad James is an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin whose specialty is rehabilitation robotics. "In a grim coincidence, he'd spent his whole career devising ways to fix a damaged nervous system," writes Engber, who follows James as he dreams up potential technological interventions for Livie and becomes "the family’s ... chief adviser on how to treat her most effectively." It was eye-opening. He realized that the robotic interventions he had spent his career engineering had been about what was technologically possible, resulting in devices that were time consuming to set up, or challenging to use properly: "Locating one of Livie's nerves with an electrical stimulator took 10 minutes, and then you couldn’t really tell whether the pulse was doing much to help her straighten out her foot. Given Livie’s crowded schedule of care and treatments, even modest hiccups of this kind could make an intervention useless." It was a powerful observation the couple shared in a peer-reviewed article in the Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation that seems to be having an impact of the entire field. (Read the full story for much more.)

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