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Science and Technology

Meet the Veterans Cal Poly Engineering Students Will Help with Adaptive Tech

A veteran with a prosthetic foot stands on a surfboard.
Written By Pat Pemberton

A man wearing a hat sits in front of an American flag
Army veteran Peter Way

Years after being wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade, Peter Way was dangerously close to becoming another suicide statistic. But a dog named Rory helped the Army veteran regain his life.

Now he’s hoping Cal Poly students will make Rory’s life a little easier by creating a more accessible vehicle ramp.

“If you can help me out, you’d be affecting two lives,” the former Army medic from a suburb near Augusta, Georgia, told students in a video message. “Rory will last a lot longer. It’s about $50,000 to train a service dog, and Rory is extra, extra special.”

Way was among several veterans who offered challenges to students recently through the Quality of Life Plus (QL+) program, which pairs vet needs with student senior projects. The program was launched in 2008 and the campus QL+ Lab opened a year later at Cal Poly by alumnus Jon Monett (Industrial Engineering, ’64). Since then, the program has expanded nationwide and includes universities in nine states and the District of Columbia.

The challenges are issued to students at the start of the fall quarter, when students can bid on which projects they wish to work on the entire school year. This year teams were formed for nine projects.

Here are highlights from three of the challengers — all for military veterans:

A black dog rests his head on a man's knee, with medical equipment and the American flag in the background
Way's service dog, Rory

Service Dog Ramp
After Way was wounded by shrapnel in Afghanistan in 2003, the now-retired Army major endured 12 years of complications from his injuries. “The infections ate my leg up,” he told students. “In 2015, after 24 surgeries, I elected to have my (right) leg amputated above the knee. So this is my life now.”

Throughout his recovery, the emotional pain matched his physical complications.

In January 2014, however, he was matched up with Rory, a black Labrador provided by America’s VetDogs. Service dogs like Rory are trained to calm vets, even waking them during nightmares that are common amongst those with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“He helps me get around,” Way said in his video. “Rory goes everywhere with me, which includes riding in my vehicle.”

But the 7-year-old Lab has to jump into the cab of Way’s Toyota Tacoma pickup. Commercial ramps are too steep for Rory, who will find it even more challenging as he ages. So Way asked students to create a less steep ramp, without too many adjustments, that will take up minimal space inside the truck’s interior.

In a separate challenge, Way asked students to create a wheelchair lift that can fit in the cab of his truck.

Backpacking Prosthetic
Cassie Perando was a nuclear electrician’s mate on the supercarrier USS Nimitz from 2005-2012. After her Navy service, she suffered a traumatic amputation to her left arm, above the elbow, as a result of a vehicle rollover accident. Now the owner of a farm in Oregon, Perando has two challenges. 

First, the avid hiker is asking for a prosthetic arm design that will allow her to carry a pack when she backpacks. With her prosthesis strapped to her shoulder, the backpack covers the strap and part of the arm, pinching her skin. She also would like the prosthesis to have a more camping-friendly terminal device — the feature at the end of the device that functions as a hand.

“I have a hard time fishing and getting in and out of my tent while I’m backpacking,” she said in her video message.

Second, as a farmer, she also would like a terminal device that allows her to hold small items and grasp various tools — “something that would make it easier to hold screws for screwing, to clamp on to things with more force than this hook,” she said, pointing to her current terminal device.

Surfing Foot
After serving two tours of combat duty in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, former Marine Dana Cummings lost his leg as a civilian in California. The 2002 accident occurred in a 1976 Volkswagen van Cummings had painted to resemble the Mystery Machine from the Scooby-Doo cartoons. Cummings’ left leg was broken in 17 places, and it eventually had to be amputated.

As part of his recovery, Cummings took up surfing and eventually co-founded AmpSurf, a Pismo Beach-based surf clinic for people with disabilities that also conducts clinics on the East Coast and other West Coast beaches.

Cummings, now the president of AmpSurf, has several challenges, including a prosthetic foot that would have better surface contact with his surfboard. His current prosthesis slips when he tries to pop up to his feet.

A better foot, he said, “would allow me to stay lower in my stance and be able to maneuver the board better in the waves.”

He would also like students to create a surfboard sled for his AmpSurf camps. Currently, attendees with paralysis have to be rolled to the water’s edge in a wheelchair. A sled would allow them to roll to the water on top of a board.

“It’s just an easier transition versus using a beach wheelchair all the way into the water and doing the transition in the water,” he said.

Photo above: Former Marine Dana Cummings shows off his new adaptive prosthetic foot specialized for surfing.