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Brain-Injured Daughter Gets Assistance From Computer

March 20, 1985|MIKE GRANBERRY | Times Staff Writer

CHULA VISTA — Karen Lambert was going home.

It was August, 1982, a sunny morning full of good feelings and hope. Karen was driving back from a flute lesson that did justice to a flowering talent. The car rounded a curve. . . .

She does remember her car colliding with another. She remembers being thrown through the windshield and run over by another car. From there, memory blanks. She spent 81 days in a coma.

Afterward, life was a different game.

Some people say Karen's lucky to have a father like Carl Lambert, 43, a retired naval officer and computer scientist whose skills gave his daughter a chance. From the start of five agonizing months in the hospital, Lambert pestered doctors and nurses and made spies of orderlies to learn more about Karen's critical condition.

Then he went to a computer terminal.

Lambert has played a herculean role in the better-than-hoped-for recovery of scarlet-haired, freckle-faced Karen, now an 18-year-old freshman at Southwestern College in south San Diego County. As a "brain-injured" person, she may never be "all the way back," but now, at least, there's hope.

Lambert learned his computer craft in the Navy. What he's done for Karen is compose programs--currently 28--that enhance short-term memory and concentration and recondition the mind's cognitive reflexes. His success is now being watched by hundreds of others. Medical centers across the country have shown interest in the software, which Lambert sells for $245. (He's sold more than 100, most to rehabilitation outlets, a handful to private individuals.) He also has plans for a research foundation based on his daughter's experience and the new-found knowledge that computers can be a force in the healing of an injured mind.

"It finally boiled down to one thing," Lambert said. "If you focus attention on a task, see it through to completion and do it in a reasonable time, you've conquered the three things most normal folks face every day. For the most part, these are the things head-injury cases can't handle. I had to figure out some way Karen could."

Father Gets Credit

Dr. Robert Magnuson, Karen's physiatrist (specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation), gives Lambert credit for his daughter's amazing comeback.

"He dedicated his life," Magnuson said, "to seeing that she gets back every bit of function she possibly can. He worked with occupational and speech therapists, defined the goals they needed to work on, applied game theories to them and wrote programs. If Karen's work wasn't successful, he did it again and again until he somehow got exactly what he wanted." (Lambert estimates writing more than 200 programs until settling on the current 28.)

It took a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of pain. Karen's mother, Joyce Lambert, also played a role in the healing of an only child.

"Mostly, I worked," she said with a tired laugh. (Carl Lambert receives retirement pay from the Navy, but Joyce Lambert's salary for office work was, he said, "the energy" that carried them through.)

Pleased With Recovery

"It was frustrating for both of us," she said. "Oh, my, you wouldn't believe how frustrating it got. It still gets frustrating. I feel I can't do enough for her, and, I have to work. But we were pleased with her recovery. You couldn't imagine how much. It's the difference between watching her live, and watching her die."

When Magnuson first saw Karen, she had "no function in any extremity, couldn't sit up, couldn't verbalize, could do nothing for herself in the area of self-care. She had no control over her bladder. She had impaired swallowing and a feeding tube."

Now Magnuson marvels at a woman fully sufficient in personal hygiene, who works as a hospital volunteer, walks with little difficulty and pulled off the feat of graduating with her class from Hilltop High School in Chula Vista.

"Certainly, I've seen other hurt people do well," Magnuson said. "But I don't know that I've ever seen someone hurt this badly do this well."

Karen came home from Paradise Valley Hospital in National City in February of '83. Enough has happened to the Lamberts since to fill a lifetime for most people. Carl, now an object of curiosity and praise in a medical community hungry for new knowledge, admits to a high degree of innocent obsessiveness. It isn't easy being a father who seemingly everyone has been calling a genius.

Hope Is Possible

"He is," said Ruth Tucker, a clinical psychologist and specialist in learning disabilities. Tucker is based in the Diagnostic Learning Center of Southwestern College, where Karen received treatment. "There's a tremendous number of brain-injured people living in the country. And up to now there's hardly been hope (in making such persons fully functioning). It's difficult to find ways of getting hope. This can be . . . one of those ways."

Brain-injured people, Tucker said, take longer to process an ongoing flow of rapid information. Lambert's programs get the process speeded up again.

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