His laptop is placed on a desk cluttered with files, plug sockets and electronic equipment like measurement instruments that generate electric signals and come to life every now and then, beeping red. A file cabinet placed at one end of the table has drawers full of microchips, tiny pins and wires, and a suitcase wrapped in an old bedsheet contains his latest invention meant for his PhD thesis.
The device, Prof Ajitkumar Gorakhanath Patil explains patiently to me, measures heart rate variations. His thesis proposes that by studying this variation, one can predict whether the rest of the body is functioning well or not. “Even an X-ray cannot show how a body part will function after it has been damaged,” he says, visibly excited.
I nod my head slowly, trying to take in all the physics and biology. Patil, who has been a professor of medical electronics at SBM Polytechnic, Vile Parle since 1979 is clearly used to that nod. He tries a different track. “When someone suffers a spinal cord injury, the rate of their heart beat is different. This becomes a clear indicator of how the rest of their nervous system — and therefore the rest of their body — is functioning.”
He should know. Professor Patil, now 51, is a paraplegic and inventing devices to overcome his disabilities is something he has been doing for a long time.
Injuring his spine
Barely six months after his wedding, Patil returned to his native village in Satara district for Diwali celebrations, carrying home a gift for his parents. “It was a TV set. I was carrying it on my shoulders and slipped. I fell into a canal and broke a spinal cord disc near my neck,” he says, recounting the incident.
He was taken back to Mumbai and admitted into KEM Hospital where he was told that he would not be able to move again. At his college, his seniors began debating whether he should be allowed to keep his post. Keen to help, they offered to retain him as a clerk. But Patil was sure of one thing: nothing was going to stop him from delivering his lectures.
In August 1985, less than a year after he had been immobilised, he gave his first lecture. Patil was wheeled into his classroom by his wife, Shamuli, who assisted him in operating the overhead projector, with which he delivered his lectures. “One of the first hurdles I had to cross was incontinence, a common problem in paraplegia,” he says.
In the months that he was in and out of hospital before resuming his lectures, Patil had developed an ingenious device, called Electrotone, to help him control his bladder. By December, he even presented a paper on the effectiveness of this device at the All India Symposium on Biomedical Engineering held in Mumbai.
Another device he worked on, probably his most important till date, was a finger clamp. A twisted piece of metal, the clamp helped him position his fingers, which couldn’t move, to hold a pen and write with ease. He still uses the clamp, now to navigate his touchpad and punch the laptop keys.
Starting a family
“Mrs and I were always keen to start a family,” Patil says. The fact that impotence was one of the fallouts of paraplegia didn’t deter him. Using the electrotone with some modifications, Patil and Shamuli became proud parents of a baby boy in 1989. When their son Abhijit was five, they had their second child, a girl. They named her Abhilasha — a word that means aspiration in Hindi.
By this time Patil had come a long way from being wheeled around with straps to help him sit up. He had begun using a self-designed electronic wheelchair, for which he won the NRDC National Invention Award in 1994, to travel to college and back. He regularly attended conferences seminars in Mumbai, New Delhi and Mysore and even took his family on a holiday to Pataya after attending a conference held at the National University in Singapore in 2002.
Patil’s bio data — seven pages neatly stapled together — is a compendium of his life’s work and achievements. It lists the various awards he has received over his career, including a National Award for Outstanding Work (1989), a Vijay Ratna (1997) and a State Teacher Award (1999), and the 25 research papers he has presented till date.
It also gives a brief on the various inventions he has worked on to facilitate the lives of disabled persons. But more than a compendium of genius, those seven pages are a testimony to the fact that Patil’s disability has done nothing but spur him on to cross that thin line between the livable and the unlivable life.