October 14, 2013
Mitsunobu Sato / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Shuichi Tokunaga, 63, spent nine years developing a machine to automatically suction phlegm from patients who have undergone a tracheotomy and are attached to an artificial respirator.
“I wanted to alleviate the burden on their family members,” Tokunaga said, referring to the laborious process of extracting phlegm from such patients manually.
Tokunaga had worked for a leading electric appliance manufacturer as an engineer, designing and developing air conditioners and other products. At 35, he returned to his hometown in Oita Prefecture and joined a local company.
When a friend whose brother was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) told Tokunaga about the pain that the patient experienced and the family members’ hardship in administering care, he decided to utilize his skills, knowledge and free time on weekends to develop a sensor for ALS sufferers who can’t speak, so they could communicate their wishes to those around them using gestures such as a slight motion of their fingers.
In spite of uncertainty about securing his own livelihood, Tokunaga decided to strike out on his own at 47, starting development of an automatic phlegm-suctioning machine with the cooperation of doctors. The goal-oriented born craftsman thought nobody but himself would ever undertake such a project.
He repeatedly conducted suction experiments, using egg yolk so as not to damage the outer layer of the patient’s tracheal tissue. Two years ago, after much trial and error, he managed to develop a machine for commercial use. About 500 units have been sold.
“To hear patients and their family members express their relief and joy is the biggest encouragement to me,” Tokunaga said. “I want to continue improving the machine.”