Katelyn Toth and her stepbrother were riding a paddleboat on a small lake near Bremen, Indiana, in 2006 when a storm whipped out of nowhere and unleashed a lightning bolt, the lone strike in a 60-mile radius.
While her stepbrother suffered only a slight shock, Katelyn took the full force of the sudden strike. Lightning bolts can be so powerful they vaporize the sap in a tree and cause a steam explosion that blows apart the trunk. Katelyn suffered third-degree burns across her face, neck and torso.
The 12-year-old – who loved softball, played the clarinet, rescued earthworms on the driveway after rainstorms, and once brought 27 frogs home to her basement – was not expected to live. She was airlifted to two different hospitals. She lingered in a coma-like state for months, her brain severely shocked. Doctors at a special burn unit in Kalamazoo, Michigan, told her mother, Julie Noblitt, that Katelyn would never walk or talk again.
“She brings a lot of light when we go places”
A year later, Katelyn returned to the burn unit in Kalamazoo and walked through the door with only the help of a walker. The male nurse who’d been most involved in her treatment broke down in tears. But Katelyn and her mother are too focused on recovery for self-pity.
“She brings a lot of light when we go places,” Julie says of her daughter. “I call it her light. It’s an aura, how she projects energy. Her determination. It just draws people to her and makes them smile.”
A group of Notre Dame engineering students, drawn to Katelyn’s light, spent this semester experimenting on how to help her with another step in her recovery: eating on her own. Now 22 years old, she has control of her arms when held close to her torso, but when she extends them, ongoing nerve damage causes tremors that make controlling a fork or spoon nearly impossible.
“When we eat out at a restaurant, I’ve seen her turn away from the other people there so they can’t see her being fed and eating,” Julie said. “It breaks my heart. This project is about self-esteem, giving her the control to eat on her own.”
“It gives a purpose to what we do as engineers”
The students took two different approaches. Emily Cunningham led a team focused on adapting a robotic arm. Michael Boyle led a simpler, mechanical approach that involved PVC pipe pieces to extend Katelyn’s reach. The seniors worked more as partners than competitors.
At their first meeting, Cunningham said she was struck by the realization she and Katelyn are the same age.
“She has this beautiful blond hair with a delicate braid that shows her mom is so loving,” Cunningham said. “Katelyn works really hard in therapy, but you can tell eating is frustrating. It would be wonderful for her to get that sense of freedom back.”
Cunningham and Boyle are working with Katelyn through a one-credit course at Notre Dame called Student Engineers Reaching Out (SERO). Paul Brenner, associate director of the Center for Research Computing and associate professor of computer science and engineering, volunteers as the faculty mentor of the class of about 10 students.
SERO grew out of a national service-learning design program in which teams of students partner with local service organizations to address human and community needs. Brenner said he mentored a team as a graduate student and then took over when he joined the faculty in 2007.
“It gives a purpose to what we do as engineers,” Brenner said. “It’s a way to apply their learning that can help when they are sitting in their third calculus class and they’re overwhelmed with technical aspects. They also like helping the community.”
Cunningham agreed: “I burned out a little on engineering for a while, but SERO was one reason I stayed in.” While the engineering major is made up of about 70 percent male students, the class tends to be the opposite. She speculated that females are attracted to the human connection, while other clubs target career development, like a group that builds off-road vehicles for an intercollegiate competition.
Both seniors have taken the class five times. There is an informal class Monday evenings, where Brenner hears updates and offers suggestions. The students run a Tuesday night session in a machine shop in Stinson-Remick Hall.
They call the session “Toys” because their longest-running project is adapting toys for children with physical limitations at area hospitals. Activities include putting larger buttons on an MP3 player, building foot straps and different steering handles for toy cars the kids ride, and rewiring larger on-off switches. They even 3-D print special parts to make a toy truck easier to control.
“The kids like them so much their parents don’t always bring them back,” Boyle said. “The hospitals don’t really mind, so we just adapt new ones.”
“There is no textbook to tell us what will happen next week”
Noblitt struggles with her emotions as she describes the day of Katelyn’s accident. She was working at an ophthalmologist office when she got the call. She couldn’t believe she’d left no gas in the car and had to pump a few gallons with shaking arms. Seeing a line at the register, she threw money at the cashier and continued driving blindly west.
Katelyn was taken first to Bremen, then airlifted to Memorial Hospital in South Bend. Noblitt’s husband met her in a parking lot because she didn’t know where she was going. When she arrived, she kicked off her shoes to sprint inside the hospital, only to find her daughter unresponsive. She remembers whispering to Katelyn that angels would take care of her. “Don’t give up,” she said.
Severe burns, Noblitt learned, get worse before they get better. The traumatic brain injury was permanent. Short-term memory was affected, as was physical movement.
“She had to relearn how to do everything,” Noblitt said. “Everything is a progression, even small things like putting toothpaste on a brush. Some days the tremors are so bad she can’t drink a glass of water. Pretty much everything we take for granted.”
Speaking is still a struggle, though Katelyn can say some words and understand what others say. She nods or shakes her head, or gives a thumbs up. She and Noblitt often communicate without words. For more complex discussions, Katelyn types on an iPad.
The questions were inevitable. Why did one child get hit and the other spared? Why was she in that exact spot? How could God let this happen? But Noblitt said Katelyn has leaned more heavily on her faith, once asking if God can understand her prayers “even though I can’t talk very well.”
Noblitt quit her job and has been a full-time caregiver for the last decade. She guided Katelyn through a specialized path through school and works to keep her active, including horseback riding for therapy and volunteer work at their hair salon. Music seems to help her memory.
Trinity Lutheran Church in Elkhart has set up a fund for Katelyn to help pay for medical expenses and other needs. If anyone would like to help, send or deliver your donation to the church with "attention" to Shelley Schneider and an enclosed note stating it is for Katelyn Toth.
They recently got a service dog with a harness and handle that Katelyn can hold to aid her walking. A big black lab, Bear sits patiently at her side when he isn’t sniffing visitors. Both love to interact with other people.
“It’s not a straight line,” Noblitt said. “She gains ground in one area and loses it in another. There is no textbook to tell us what will happen next week.”
Mother and daughter are clearly excited to work with the energetic students designing and building a custom solution for Katelyn to feed herself.
“Try the fastest approach and get the concept down, then refine it”
The project with Katelyn began because her occupational therapist from Memorial Neurological Outpatient Therapy, Heather Beaver, heard about SERO and contacted Brenner.
SERO bought a $300 robot arm, which Cunningham hoped to reprogram so that Katelyn could control it with a joystick. Boyle chose a more mechanical approach of extension pipes and joints because he thought that would feel more natural and independent. Brenner encouraged the dual approach so there would be several options and mild competition.
“Part of what we learn here is to fail fast,” Cunningham said. “Try the fastest approach and get the concept down. Then refine it.”
The robot arm created immediate delays when the students tried to calibrate it and change its speed and scoop motion. Cunningham’s team downloaded open-source programs off the Internet to try to reprogram it. The joystick also proved unwieldy for Katelyn.
Boyle started with a computer-aided design program, plugged in table and chair dimensions, then went to Home Depot for PVC pipe and clamps. Early versions used rubber bands for tension and duct tape to hold on a fork. He said the plastic may not look great but it’s more lightweight and easier to shape than metal.
Boyle had Katelyn test his first version to see what needed to be improved. When she leans forward too far, Noblitt said, her choking hazard increases. So Boyle went back to the shop, redesigned his joints and pipe lengths, switched springs for rubber bands, and found a rubber piece designed to hold eating utensils.
For months, both teams kept refining their contraptions late into the night. At one point, they were forced into the hallway by a freshman project crowding the machine shop. They tailored their designs just for Katelyn, Boyle said, but there could be other patients with similar limits.
“It’s always better to design for a specific client and then later back out to produce for a bigger market,” he said. “I had a similar experience when I interned for a company.”
“Is this cool or what? You're doing it all by yourself”
With the semester coming to a close, Boyle and Cunningham met with Katelyn on April 21 to try the latest refinements of the PVC pipe system. Boyle clamped the device to the table while Cunningham helped Katelyn attach a Velcro strap to secure her right arm into the handle portion.
Cunningham had baked brownie balls and brought fresh fruit. Katelyn chose the healthier option. She pushed down to stab a piece of fruit, and the new spring pushed the fork back up while she manipulated the joints to twist the fork toward her mouth. Using both arms, she found better control.
The process would take some practice, but it got an immediate thumbs up from Katelyn. Next, she stabbed a blackberry and maneuvered the fork to pop it into her mouth. Beaver, her therapist, was overwhelmed, saying with tears in her eyes: “How many years have we waited for this?”
Noblitt rubbed her daughter’s shoulders. “Is this cool or what?” she whispered in her ear. “You’re doing it all by yourself.”
Boyle explained that he’d make a few more changes based on the latest results and give the device to Katelyn to practice during the summer. She could give feedback to the SERO group that will work to improve it next year. Katelyn kept feeding herself fruit, seemingly more to enjoy the process than out of hunger. Cunningham thanked her for working with SERO.
“This is amazing,” Boyle said. “It’s the best possible use of what we’re learning. Often, we just take a test, but this is great to see the results.”
Katelyn leaned over her iPad and typed a message: “Like it. I’m so very happy.”
She slid the iPad toward the SERO students and pressed a button to speak the words out loud: “Like it. I’m so very happy.”