Student club at Virginia Tech works to enrich lives through assistive devices, technology
Twenty years after receiving graduate degrees from Virginia Tech, Benjamin Toderico and Denise Gorondy-Toderico visited campus to both teach and continue to learn the power of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).
“That motto is not just something you say every day, but a philosophy you carry with you during time at Virginia Tech and after graduation,” said Denise, who received an animal science degree in 1995 and a degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine in 1999. “This incident has made it so that we focus on the positive. We focus on serving each other, serving our family, serving our community. It’s definitely had a profound effect on us.”
It’s been three years since “the incident,” when Denise, out for her Sunday morning run, was struck from behind by an SUV traveling at 60 mph. Denise lay in a field for more than an hour before she was found and flown to a trauma hospital. She spent the next 40 days in a hospital, and continues even now to recover from several strokes, traumatic brain injury, several broken vertebrae in her neck and back, and other orthopedic and internal traumas.
“When Denise left physical therapy, she was walking,” Benjamin said. “Now she’s running. She’s swimming. She can carry a 75-pound weight across the gym, and so she can carry our kids. It may not look the same, but we’ve learned that you can do whatever you want to do.”
Benjamin played an important role, using his expertise developed at Tech to develop nutritional strategies and exercise approaches for Denise that helped her build her physical capacity to augment her therapy.
On the last day of April 2019, the Todericos returned to campus to pass the wisdom earned on that journey along to a younger class of Hokies, while in turn being served by Tech’s Quality of Life Plus club.
“You guys have the opportunity to change people’s lives,” Benjamin Toderico told a nutrition and physical performance class while standing poolside in War Memorial Hall.
As he spoke to the class, members of the Quality of Life Plus club worked nearby to complete final adjustments to a device that would let Denise, whose right arm is still immobile in a sling, paddle a canoe using her left arm and both feet.
Quality of Life Plus, or QL+ for short, is a student organization with a mission to improve the quality of life of community members and those who have served through innovation in prostheses, medical devices, and assistive technologies.
The Virginia Tech chapter of the national organization began as a senior design project but has blossomed into a student organization that regularly takes on “challengers,” or individuals for whom the QL+ team designs and builds devices to enrich their lives.
In addition to the paddling device for Denise, the club has designed a holder that provides assistance when reeling a fishing rod from a wheelchair, a device to help an individual zip his or her pants with one hand, and an adaptable and transferable miniature golf course with clubs for people of all disabilities at NeuroRestorative in Blacksburg.
“That I may serve is the whole basis of this club,” said Mackenzie Lewis, who when the Todericos visited was a senior majoring in human development and family science. “We target people in the community who need specialized health equipment.”
“Ut Prosim is very important to us,” said club president Zackory Biggers, a junior mechanical engineering major. “We want to help the people in our community. We want to improve their quality of life in a way that to a lot of people may seem small, but to them it could mean the world. In working with doctors and hospitals, you don’t necessarily get these types of devices that assist in recreational activities or things that aren’t understood as well.”
The Todericos live an active lifestyle, keeping fit both through exercise and raising their two boys, Gavin and Cormac, whom they lovingly call “savage little monkeys.” Indeed, the boys’ shouts and motion filled War Memorial’s pool room as the Quality of Life Plus team made final modifications to the paddling device. Denise settled into an Old Town canoe to try it out, as her sons clamored for the chance to float with her.
After a few laps around the pool, she climbed back out, and the team made a few final tweaks before sending it home with the family.
“It was good,” Denise said afterward. “There’s a learning curve to the device, so the more I use it, the more proficient I will be. It’s a good fix to not being able to use my right hand in the canoe.”
This open approach to the ongoing process of relearning to use her body has marked Denise’s life since the incident. With Benjamin’s support, she has made huge strides over the past three years. They regularly ride a tandem bike with the boys on a tandem trailer. She has raced a 5K, ridden horses, hiked, and gone downhill skiing.
“I’ve always been strong-willed,” Denise said. “When I set my mind on something, I’m going to get it done. That is how I’m facing the challenge of this recovery. I’m not there yet, but I’m going to get there. The experience has made it so that you can never forget that. You can never forget that determination, that will, that mindset.”
The Todericos connected with the Quality of Life Plus club in 2018 when they returned to Blacksburg for a nephew’s graduation. During commencement, they attended a QL+ presentation about a device the club had designed for Dawn Halfaker, an Army veteran who had lost her arm, to enable her to do push-ups and planks. Benjamin approached the club and it agreed to take on Denise as a challenger, which is the club’s term for the individuals it assists.
Denise said the team exemplifies the Ut Prosim ethic.
“They are serving the community through engineering solutions,” she said. “They’re trying to improve the quality of life for people who are still wanting to thrive and do things. These people are currently physically limited, but they still have dreams and passions about pursuing things. QL+ makes it happen.”