Spoon Invented For Unsteady Hands

Monday, July 31st 2000, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — It was a big day for Samantha Crabtree. For the first time in her life, the 4-year-old spoon-fed herself.

Born with arthrogryposis, a rare occurrence where missing muscle mass and bone deformities limit range of motion, Samantha wasn't able to bring a spoon to her mouth without spilling.

Feeding herself was nearly impossible — she isn't able to bend her elbows against the pull of gravity.

But gravity became her greatest ally thanks to Alex Weinstein, 38, an inventor from Richmond who put a techno-twist on a very simple device: the spoon.

The spoon is attached to a push rod that runs through the tubing that doubles as the handle. The scoop locks into place when it plunges into food; then it unlocks, and a counterbalance takes over to keep the scoop level.

``Who knew a spoon could be so complicated?'' the inventor said recently as he whirled around his creation, the SteadySpoon. As he twisted and contorted, the spoon's use of gravity and basic physics principles kept the scoop level.

The spill-proof spoon is ideal for children and people with cerebral palsy, Parkinson's disease or other muscular dysfunctions that make keeping a steady hand difficult.

The 9 1/2 -inch-long spoon weighs about 7 ounces and is too heavy for Samantha to maneuver, so her physical therapist, Carol Elliott, rigged it with a mounting system where the spoon sits on a pivot, rocking back and forth.

When Samantha first got her spoon in February, she couldn't help showing it off, said the girl's mother, Pam Crabtree.

Samantha ``likes being able to do everything possible for herself,'' Crabtree said.

On Friday, Samantha showed off her ability with her new spoon, digging into a pudding cup at the Children's Hospital in Richmond.

After a bobbled first attempt and a dollop of vanilla pudding on her nose, Samantha said proudly, ``I eat at home all by myself.''

Often taken for granted, the ability to feed oneself is ``the ultimate in independence,'' said Elliott, Samantha's occupational therapist since the girl was 5 weeks old.

That day of independence came to Samantha on Feb. 21 when she downed a bowl of pudding and took stabs at a bowl of water, which served as make-believe soup.

``She ate like a champ,'' Elliott said. ``It was very exciting. We watched her feed herself for the first time.''

In her 13 years as an occupational therapist, Elliott says she has never seen an invention like the SteadySpoon.

``I've always had to sit there and bend and contort spoons, and it works for scooping but it doesn't work when it gets to their mouth,'' she said.

The idea for the spoon came to Weinstein, a 1984 graduate of Virginia Military Institute, after he struggled with an invention he was working on for the aircraft industry. Frustrated, he turned his ideas toward home after listening to his mother-in-law talk about the messes that came with feeding babies.

``I started looking for things around the house that I could invent,'' he said. ``I found there are a lot of children and handicapped people who are not able to feed themselves because they didn't have the coordination or dexterity to keep the spoon level.''

Weinstein took a plastic spoon scoop, fitted it with PVC pipe and attached it with strings and pulleys to a melted fishing lure at the base. He later substituted a push rod for the pulley.

In less than a year after being patented and marketed, 150,000 spoons have been sold globally for about $50 apiece, said Sam Aronow, president of Handle With Care Inc., the Agoura Hills, Calif., company distributing the spoon. Weinstein gets a royalty on each spoon sold.

The spoons have been sold overseas, to places like New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Germany and England, Aronow said.

The spoon has soothed often-hectic mealtimes for Andrew and Catherine Elsey of Manchester, England, whose 9-year-old son, Matthew, has severe cerebral palsy.

``Meal times have been hectic for a number of years as we have had to juggle the feeding of (our) other three children around Matt. In general, one of us would have to have our meal separate so the other could feed Matt,'' Andrew Elsey wrote in an e-mail.

Stories like that keep Weinstein inventing.

``It goes beyond money. An experience like that — you can't buy that,'' he said.


On the Net:

A national arthrogryposis support group: http://www.sonnet.com/avenues

Steady Products: http://www.steadyproducts.com

Handle With Care: http://www.handlewithcare.com

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