Donald R. McNeal, PhD
Born: Lexington, KY on March 27, 1938
While studying control theory at the University of Michigan, I read the book Cybernetics: Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine by Norbert Weiner. This sparked my interest in applying what I was learning to applications within the human body. But it was not until several years later that I had the opportunity to do so. As I was completing a PhD in Electrical Engineering at Stanford University, a former fraternity brother, who had recently completed an internship in Orthopedic Surgery at Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center, told me about the engineering work going on there. Through him, I was invited by Dr. Vernon Nickel, then Medical Director at the hospital, to come down for a visit. After talking for awhile in his office, he took me on a tour of the hospital. We entered one of the hospital rooms, and he introduced me to a patient lying in bed. I stuck out my hand and immediately realized I had done the wrong thing. As I lamely pulled my hand back, Dr. Nickel explained that the patient had recently broken his neck while riding a motorcycle. After chatting a bit, Dr. Nickel noticed that I was looking a little pale, so he suggested that we move on. After leaving the room, he got me a drink of water and asked if I needed to sit down. Despite this inauspicious introduction to the world of rehabilitation, he offered me a job at Rancho and I took it. Before I moved my family south, I decided I needed a bit more preparation and signed up for the introductory course in Anatomy and Physiology at Foothill Community College!
Armed with my newfound knowledge, I reported for work in February 1968. Dr. Nickel instructed me to talk with staff members and then let him know what I wanted to do. One of the orthopedic surgeons, Dr. Vert Mooney, told me about some work done by Franjo Gracinin in which he electrically stimulated muscles during walking to correct footdrop in people with stroke. Dr. Mooney said patients didn't like the sensation and they had trouble correctly placing the electrodes, but if we could develop an implantable stimulator it might be a successful way to treat footdrop. I thought this sounded interesting and decided that was what I wanted to do. Two years later, with a lot of help from Medtronic Corporation, we surgically implanted a device called the NeuroMuscular Assist in our first stroke patient-the first neuromuscular stimulator implanted in a human in the United States. Clinical trials of the NeuroMuscular Assist demonstrated the feasibility of long-term stimulation of peripheral nerve with implanted hardware. I consider the development and testing of the NMA to be one of my greatest contributions to the field of Rehabilitation Engineering. Two others would be the development of an analytical model for nerve stimulation that has become the foundation for much of the theoretical work done during the past thirty years and founding Project Threshold in 1978, a clinical program that provided rehabilitation engineering services to thousands of clients in California.
I was a founding member of RESNA and became its third President in 1981. At that time you didn't campaign to become president; you just had to be the first who couldn't say no when asked. Jim Reswick, who I worked for at Rancho for many years, was the one who asked. During my one-year tenure, we started the newsletter and held the first annual RESNA conference that was organized and managed within the association. I have always considered it to be a great honor to have been a RESNA President. Later, I served on the Board of Directors and chaired the Meetings Committee for many years. Even though I have never considered myself to be a "joiner" I thoroughly enjoyed my years of involvement with RESNA, and I know that I benefited greatly from being part of the organization. I sincerely believe that RESNA has played a vital role in growing and shaping the field of Rehabilitation Engineering and expect that it will continue to do so for many, many years.
I have always considered it to be a great honor to have been a RESNA President.