Student has Segway scooter to negotiate SEMO campus

Monday, November 1, 2004

Brooke Gill is on a roll, even in the classroom.

The Southeast Missouri State University senior relies on a Segway -- a high-tech, two-wheel, seatless scooter-like device -- to get around the hilly Cape Girardeau campus.

For Gill, it's not a luxury. The 24-year-old from Dexter, Mo., has difficulty walking -- the result of a traffic accident in July 1996 shortly after she turned 16.

"I am so blessed to have this. I just sail along," she said, sporting a broad grin.

She's only had it since this summer. Prior to that, she depended on car rides, the campus shuttle buses and a cane to get around.

Gill, who is majoring in social work, now makes the trip from her Towers West dorm room to her classes in Crisp Hall by traveling up the steep concrete ramp on campus known as "Cardiac Hill." She returns to her dorm the same way, often drawing attention from other students intrigued by the electric-powered transporter.

She still rides the shuttle buses from time to time, particularly when it's raining. But she prefers taking her Segway.

Eight years ago, Gill was driving the family van when she crashed near Doniphan, Mo. "I just missed a curve and drove straight into a tree," she recalled. The van flipped over and landed upside down in a ditch.

"I almost broke my neck," she said.

Gill was in a coma for a couple of months. When she returned home to Dexter, she had to learn how to walk all over again.

"I didn't get to go to high school my junior year," Gill said.

Rather, she studied at home. She returned to high school for her senior year, graduating with her class in 1998.

She then enrolled at Three Rivers Community College in Poplar Bluff, Mo. She transferred to Southeast in fall 2001.

But getting around was still an ordeal. She walked with a cane, but only short distances. At Southeast, she relied on the shuttle vans and rides from a friend to get to her classes.

The muscles in the left side of her body remain crippled. Damaged nerves make it harder to control that side of her body. She wears a soft brace on her left hand and a solid brace on her left foot.

"I have double vision," she said. It comes and goes, depending on how she turns her head.

Despite that problem, she has quietly balanced her life on a Segway. The craft goes forward and backward depending on how one leans while standing up. High-tech gyroscopes and tilt sensors adjust themselves 100 times a second to keep the craft upright.

Riders shift their weight to steer or stop. There are no brakes.

Her family has tried out the device. "Once you get the feel of it, you don't have to think about it," said her mother, Jan Gill of Dexter.

Jan Gill said she first learned about the Segway while watching a television program. She bought one over the Internet and had it shipped to their Dexter home.

Counting shipping, the device ended up costing the Gills about $4,500.

There are several models of Segway. They vary in size and weigh between 70 and 83 pounds. Brooke Gill's craft is small enough to maneuver easily in campus buildings and classrooms.

"We just thought this would be perfect for her," Jan Gill said.

Brooke Gill said other students often react with a "wow" when they see her rolling up Cardiac Hill.

Some students tell her they'd like to have a Segway. As for Brooke Gill, she hopes someday she won't need it.

For now, Gill's mode of transportation still turns heads.

She even rode it down Broadway in Southeast's parade on Saturday. "She stole the show, I think," Jan Gill said.

The Segway arrived at the Gill home in July. Brooke Gill said she learned to ride it in about 15 minutes. "I rode it through the house," she said, adding that initially she ran into a few pieces of furniture.

Dr. Jean Bernstein, associate professor of social work and Gill's adviser at Southeast, said the device drew everyone's attention when Gill first rode into the classroom this fall.

"Everybody wanted to look at it," she said. But "nobody really wanted to get on it."

6 mph maximum

Brooke Gill moves along at a maximum speed of 6 mph on her Segway. Some models can reach speeds of 17 mph, depending on the settings.

"It can go 10 hours before it needs charging," she said. The battery-powered craft plugs into a standard wall socket for recharging.

Jan Gill said her daughter's Segway uses up a lot of power going up Cardiac Hill. "That saps a lot of the battery," she said.

But so far it hasn't run out of power, except when the Gill family did it on purpose to see what would happen.

"It gives you a warning if you are about out of power. The whole machine shakes," Jan Gill said. "If you don't get off it, it will finally fall over."

Inventor Dean Kamen unveiled the Segway in 2001 after spending $100 million on research and development.

Segways initially were available to the public only over the Internet and at Brookstone, a specialty chain of stores featuring innovative home and garden products. More than 6,000 of the self-balancing scooters have been sold over the past several years.

Dealerships began opening across the country this year.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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