Jon Turnquist in a sense plays the part of the Wizard — as in of Oz.

He doesn't identify what people in need need. He asks them — and then delivers.

And while he can't deliver a heart, he can make hearts sing. He can help a person regain a bit of courage, help them better utilize their brain. If their goal is to return to Kansas, that's a little out of his league. But he can certainly help them return home.

Turnquist is an inventor. He's a teacher. He's an occupational therapist.

"I call him the whiz kid," says Joan Kundert, a nurse at The Kahl Home for the Aged and Infirm in Davenport. "He can take any little gadget and make something out of it."

That's what the course he teaches at St. Ambrose University is all about. It's called assistive technology — which basically means using technology to assist people in need.

It might be using such things as remote controls, cordless phones, eye glasses, toys, wheelchairs or computers and converting them into other devices that make life easier for people whose lives have been forever changed by disease, accident or some sort of tragedy.

"As therapists, we are concerned with functioning in life rolls. The tasks that can easily be taken for granted by many individuals — like using a phone, TV, dressing, cooking, eating, walking, talking, driving a care — can also be suddenly disrupted by fate," Turnquist says. "If we can't bring a patient's physical level up to a point of functioning in a given environment, then we have to adjust their environment to their level."

The assistive technology course is part of St. Ambrose's occupational therapy program, the only master's level program like it in Iowa.

Through the assistive technology lab at the college, Turnquist offers free services to health-care providers, students and teachers throughout the Quad-City area. He also has a lending library where the Quad-City public can try out his and his students' inventions.

Kundert says she never hesitates to call Turnquist when a patient at The Kahl Home has a problem she just can't figure out how to solve. And he's solved many.

One of the more interesting ones involved a man who had dementia. He had a tendency to stand up and fall, but he didn't listen to aides when they would instruct him to make sure he stayed seated.

The only person he would follow directions from was his wife, but she couldn't be at nursing home at all times.

So Turnquist had a plan to record the wife's voice, gently reminding him to stay seated. The design called for the recording to automatically play as the man would rise out of his chair.

"All I have to do is call Jon and tell him what our problem is," Kundert says. "He's got a lot of good ideas in that little head."

Turnquist's methodology for approaching those problems is simple: "We ask, ‘What do you most want to do and what bugs you the most,'" Turnquist says of his conversations with patients.

And the answers can be all over the board. It might be that a patient wants to be able to feed himself, to put on her own bra, to change the TV channels, shave her legs, close a door.

And that's the essence of assistive technology — to help people with physical limitations perform every-day tasks.

"When a person is limited in his or her ability to perform physical tasks, assistive equipment can help that individual maintain an independent life," says Turnquist, who also is an occupational therapist at Genesis Medical Center.

The field will continue to be more and more important, he believes. Because of the changing face of health care, he says, people with physical limitations spend less and less time in hospitals, so they must adapt to their limitations as quickly as possible in a home environment.

"When a person who has been physically limited by a stroke, accident or illness has difficulty functioning at home, assistive technology can adapt the environment to suit that individual's needs," he says.

A person with multiple sclerosis, for example, might be able to move only from the neck up. With the use of devices such as a joystick or a breath-controlled switch, that person can answer the phone, turn on a television or log on to the Internet, allowing the person to live at home instead of an institutional environment.

That's exactly the scenario brought to Turnquist by Pat Vasquez, a 53-year-old Davenport woman with multiple sclerosis. She's been bed-ridden for the last six years and there were thoughts that it was time to institutionalize her.

But Turnquist prevented that. He rigged up what he calls an environmental control unit which basically controls all of the electronics around Vasquez. She controls it using sips and puffs on a machine rigged up to a computer. Turnquist put it all together for about $200.

"It has enabled me to stay in my home. It has given me independence," Vasquez says. "It made it possible for me to reach the outside world."

Such assistive technology can save countless dollars by keeping patients in their home.

And Turnquist is teaching students his same skills so such assistive technology can be applied wherever the program's graduates go. The idea is for them to apply what they have learned to invent ways to help their patients function as independently as they can.

"We want to teach students to think beyond commercial devices to tailor assistive technology to each individual's specific needs," Turnquist says.

Turnquist, the 47-year-old son of an Altoona, Iowa, blacksmith, says he's always liked fiddling with electronics, gadgets and even invented his own robot once to take over a repetitive job in his former woodworking shop. But just as much, he likes the feeling he gets when he's solved a person's problems.

"I like challenges," he says. "I think anything is possible."


The St. Ambrose University Assistive Technology Lab offers free services to health-care providers, students and teachers throughout the Quad-City area.

It also has a lending library of equipment for users to try.

Call Jon Turnquist at (563) 333-6351 for more information or e-mail


The St. Ambrose University occupational therapy department developed an assistive technology lab last year that offers free services to health-care providers, students and teachers.

Assistive technology is the use of equipment, such as switches, computers and other electronics, to help people with physical limitations perform everyday tasks

The program could use computer monitors and joy sticks that can be converted for use by people with disabilities.

If you would like to donate such items, call Jon Turnquist at St. Ambrose, (563) 333-6351.


Here are some real-life examples of patients' problems presented to occupational therapist Jon Turnquist and how they were solved.

1. PROBLEM: A 52-year-old woman with muscular dystrophy needed to have the head of her hospital bed raise to a 90-degree angle so she could transfer out of it into her wheelchair.

SOLUTION: The patient had control of a shop vacuum cleaner that was used to fill up a waterbed mattress with air, which would then raise the patient's mattress to a 90-degree angle so she could transfer to her wheelchair without assistance.

2. PROBLEM: A 27-year-old man in a wheelchair keeps dropping silverware in the dishwasher. He needs a device to retrieve the silverware because it blocks the sprayer arm inside the dishwasher.

SOLUTION: A long "reacher" is made out of a mechanic's pickup tool that fits on the patient's right wrist and can be operated using the palm of his left hand.

3. PROBLEM: A 52-year-old man confined to a wheelchair could not lift his hand to his mouth in order to feed himself.

SOLUTION: A counterweight system was designed and built that would assist in lifting his arm from the plate to his mouth.

4. PROBLEM: An 83-year-old woman who had hip-replacement surgery had a difficult time remembering that she could not lean forward more than 90-degrees because it would cause her hip to dislocate. Because of her memory problems, she continued to lean forward too far and she had dislocated her hip three times while reaching down to the floor.

SOLUTION: A small plastic box that would buzz when tilted past a 90-degree angle was placed in the woman's breast pocket. It buzzed before she would bend over to the point of dislocating her hip.

5. PROBLEM: A patient was intellectually incontinent. She could think, but couldn't talk. She knew what she wanted, what she needed, but had no way to communicate those needs.

SOLUTION: A tiny device was rigged up to the patient's eyeglasses and to a personal computer. With two extended blinks of the eye, the patient had access to 600 phrases, which would let her aide know what her needs were.