The Power of Invention
(Editors Note: The following autobiography, written by Davidson resident Roger Faulkner, concerns a medical vest he has invented that may vastly improve the lives of ALS patients like himself, and sufferers of other pulmonary diseases like COVID-19, COPD, sleep apnea and asthma. Faulkner has been invited to explain his invention in a TEDx talk that will be taped on October 9 in Charlotte. His talk will be recorded in a largely empty auditorium, restricted to attendance by only a few close acquaintances. It will be available, thereafter, to the general public on the Ted Talk web site: www.ted/ted/ted/.)
I found out that I have ALS on August 17, 2015. That was a life-changing experience, although I had known since 2013 that I was really sick.
I was hospitalized in the ICU in 2014 because of life-threatening breathing problems, but they didn’t diagnose ALS at that time.
It is not unusual for people who get ALS to be sick for years before they are diagnosed. ALS is a diagnosis of elimination. There are no blood tests to aid in diagnosis. It is confirmed by changes in nerve conduction properties over time.
After my ten-day hospitalization, I knew it was possible that I had ALS, but for over a year I put it out of my mind. I started using a BiPAP breathing machine at night after my hospitalization, and this helped with my energy level during the day.
There is a scene in the movie, The Theory of Everything, about Stephen Hawking, where he gets his ALS diagnosis. Reality fades as his eyes go out of focus and he quits listening to what his doctor is saying. That is an accurate depiction of what it felt like to me.
The most famous American who ever had ALS is Lou Gehrig. He was the captain of the New York Yankees when he got the disease, and he gave a famous speech at Yankee stadium when he had to retire.
ALS became known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” but I think of it as Stephen Hawking’s Disease because I have a lot more in common with Stephen Hawking. Hawking lived 55 years with the disease while Lou Gehrig died after just two years.
A crucial difference between Stephen Hawking and Lou Gehrig is that Hawking could still do theoretical physics in his head, and that gave him something for which to live. On the other hand, Lou Gehrig couldn’t play baseball anymore.
I think Lou Gehrig’s spirit was broken, and he felt no real reason to live. Also, the iron lung was the only effective medical equipment available to help him breathe. Surviving inside an iron lung meant having no real life. You couldn’t move around to get exercise. You couldn’t do anything.
If Lou Gehrig got ALS today, he would not have to choose between suffocation and imprisonment in an iron lung. Ventilators have solved that problem.
The ventilator I am breathing with right now is called the sip-and-puff, although I usually call it the air sipper. I like this one when I’m speaking to people because I can choose when to pause for a breath. But there are other ventilation methods that I use every day, and I prepared this short video to demonstrate them.
Ventilators use negative pressure to expand the lungs, mimicking the way we normally breathe. Our diaphragm muscle pulls down on the lungs, creating a vacuum that fills the lungs with air.
Zamir Hayek invented the Biphasic Cuirass Ventilator shown here. This device uses a cuirass that surrounds only the chest area, rather than the whole body. It is a big improvement over the iron lung but is not portable. My invention, the Conformal Vest Ventilator, is the next stage in the evolution of negative pressure ventilation.
I spent a good portion of my adult life as a technological entrepreneur pursuing my own inventions, most of which related to energy technology and materials science. I was always attracted to big problems with an environmental purpose.
After my ALS diagnosis, it took me a while to gather myself and begin thinking of how I could return to my roots as an inventor and scientist to develop a breathing device that would help me and others. Although I’m very glad for my ventilators because they saved my life, I realized they could be improved.
Many people with ALS wind up getting tracheostomies. This is an unpleasant surgical procedure wherein a breathing tube is inserted into a hole cut in your neck to blow air directly into the trachea and lungs. Avoiding a tracheostomy is a major motivator for my invention.
I am very blessed among ALS patients because I can still speak and eat normally. Having voice transcription allows me to create documents. including patent applications. I need my voice to continue inventing and creating.
Because my life depends on ventilators, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about them. It has led me to invent two new kinds.
The Conformal Vest Ventilator on the left has been my main project over the last few years, but I have also developed a Shared Manifold Ventilator, which can ventilate an entire hospital ward at a much lower cost per patient than any other existing method. I took several months out of my life to develop the Shared Manifold Ventilator, and I have now turned it over to a team at UNC Charlotte engineering school.
The Conformal Vest Ventilator is now my personal focus. Click here for animation.
The Conformal Vest Ventilator is a negative pressure ventilator that I developed with my brother Robert, who is a retired ER doctor. It works by expanding and contracting around your thoracic cavity. The vest must maintain contact with the skin to work– preferably through a mild vacuum between the vest and the skin.
The vest works through the action of tubes embedded in the vest, which lengthen when they are inflated. As they inflate and deflate, the tubes lengthen without getting fatter. As a tire engineer, I had the background that helped me to conceive of this idea.
The Conformal Vest Ventilator will improve the lives of people like me. It bothers me that the first thing people notice about me is either the tube or the nasal pillow that I have to breathe through. The CVV will enable me to enter a room and breathe without something sticking it in my face. Also, it can be worn under clothing. There’s nothing in your mouth, nose, or trachea that can cause deadly infections. It will also be energy efficient and portable.
Although I invented the vest ventilator for myself and other patients with neurological diseases, it has much broader applicability and might also be useful therapy for spinal cord injuries, COPD, sleep apnea, and asthma.
We are working now to develop a Conformal Vest Ventilator prototype, and hope will be available before Christmas.
I am much more skilled as an inventor than as an entrepreneur, but I am pursuing this idea as an entrepreneur. Building a company is one of the best ways to change the world. Just ask Elon Musk!
I have a burning desire to improve the world, and my vest ventilator is the latest example of that.
I want to encourage all of you to believe that you can pursue your passions and change the world, no matter your situation. In fact, you DO change the world every single day, even if you aren’t aware of it.
If you want to do something, don’t let impediments stop you from acting on that. Even if you fail, at the very least, you will have tried. And when it is your turn to die, there will be no regrets. Bless you all and thank you for reading.