Georgia Comic Artist With ALS Can Draw With His Eyes Using Eye Gaze Technology
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative condition that causes muscle weakness and paralysis. And as of right now, there is no cure.
This is the story of Patrick Dean, a creative force who’s had to face an enormous challenge. After being diagnosed with ALS in 2018, the comic artist lost his ability to hold a pen or pencil. From then on, he had to adapt.
According to his close friends Eleanor Davis, Hilary Brown, and Robert Newsome, Patrick Dean is something of a legend in Athens, Georgia. “He's a genius, basically. He's a wonderful cartoonist, an extraordinary artist,” Eleanor Davis explains. “He is one of the co-organizers of the local Mini-Comics festival in Athens, ‘FLUKE,’ which is a very punk DIY, affordable comics festival.”
"He's one of the fastest, funniest, just really an amazing comic mind, both in terms of comics as the visual medium, and comic in terms of his humor,” Robert said. “He’s a great dude, and this town absolutely is better because of his presence in it.”
Eleanor adds that not only is Patrick an extraordinary artist and wonderful person, he’s also a dad. “Patrick is also a father. He's got two awesome kids, and he's a wonderful friend, just a pillar in the community, loved by all.”
Patrick was a thriving artist, but a few years ago, he started having unexplained symptoms. "Patrick's speech had slowed down and was slurred. We didn't know what was going on. Patrick didn't know what's going on,” Robert states. “So he started going to doctors. I remember getting the message where he is very stark, and it's still in my mind. You see this word bubble that just says, 'It's ALS.'"
ALS, or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative condition that causes muscle weakness and paralysis. It is fatal, and as of yet, there is no cure.
“It was such a shock,” Eleanor said. “It wasn't anything that anybody ever could have imagined.”
According to Robert, Patrick decided to share the news the best way he knew how. “He made a comic about it. Because he knew that he was going to have to repeat this news over and over and over, so, he put a comic online that was a full explanation of, this is what was happening, this is what is happening, here is how I feel about it."
"It was a beautiful work, a work that must have ripped his guts out to have to make.” Hilary added, “He was working on his book, ‘Eddie's Week,’ which is out now finally. And then in the middle of that, there was just this terrible announcement.”
Eleanor explains that once diagnosed, Patrick began to go downhill quickly. “Losing his ability to speak was one of the first things to go, and then his ability to walk. For about two years now, he's been in a wheelchair.”
And despite being immobilized, up until December, he’d still been drawing using pencil, paper, and a glove that allowed his hands to slide easily across the paper. Per Eleanor, “His family would have to set up his table for him, and put him at the table, and physically place his arm on the paper, but he could still move enough to draw.”
In December of 2020, Patrick posted an image on Instagram. It would be the last piece he would draw with his hand. Since then, he’s relied on “eye gaze” technology. “Eye gaze technology is an extremely beneficial technology for people with limited mobility or no mobility," says Robert.
Eleanor explains the technology in detail, saying, “He's looking at a screen and controlling the digital brush with his eyes. And that's also how he talks. He uses his eyes to pick out words, and he's able to speak startlingly quickly.” She adds.
Patrick was once quoted talking about the technology and said, “Lots of ways to play with shadows on the pages. I love using a lot of ink.” He also said, “If I had known I was going to get this sick, I would have started the sequel immediately after finishing ‘Eddie’s Week.’ Still, I’m content with the ending.”
Remarkably, Patrick continues to adapt and grow, even as ALS takes its toll. Hilary states, “It's been really cool to see his skills grow super quickly in that. I can't imagine having to adjust to something like that, just using a completely different part of your brain to do something that you've been doing since you were a child. But I think his stuff looks incredible.” She adds, “You start to realize, even as you see his eye gaze stuff, that the line, an artist's line, doesn't come from their hand, it comes from their brain.”
Robert points out that although Patrick is making art in a new way, his work is still recognizable. “I think that it's a testament to the style that Patrick has established, that these different formats of making this art are still cohesive and recognizable as the product of the same mind.”
Throughout this whole ordeal, Patrick has confronted his situation in his art squarely and honestly. “Patrick is very brave in that he's looking what he's going through and what he's moving towards, right in the face,” Eleanor says.” He is making art about just this awful, heartbreaking thing that's happening to him and his family.”
She adds, “People want to see stories with happy endings, and sometimes the endings just aren't so happy. And watching Patrick refuse to turn away from that has been tremendously meaningful to me, as a person and as an artist.”
And like many, Hilary is inspired by Patrick. “Maybe if you're a fairly private person, you don't necessarily want to reveal all of your private medical issues and so on. I think that his ability to do that, and to do things that are uncomfortable for him, is very inspiring to me.”
Now, the community that Patrick did so much to build is trying to help him and his family. Hilary points out that there isn’t much money in comics. “Cartoonists, they're not rich,” she said. “Most people have a day job, or multiple day jobs, just make ends meet, let alone to deal with all the expenses that come with a horrifying disease like this. So yeah, they need the money. People need the money.”
So his friends and the comic community have put out a call for help. They’ve created a GoFundMe page, and the money is being used to pay for the thousands of dollars in care that his insurance doesn’t cover.
On the page, Patrick expressed how thankful he was for the support. "I am moved beyond words by the response this fundraiser has gotten," he said. "Everyone's generosity has made my last week in this hospice facility a little less scary as I believe my family will have some financial stability after I am gone."
Eleanor Davis states, “It's so hard to both be able to fully appreciate Patrick's bravery, Patrick's strength, his family's bravery and strength, the tremendous amount that his wife has done, Erin, my friend, Erin, to battle with the medical system, to make sure that he gets the care that he needs and deserves, the tremendous strength his kids have shown and the love that they've shown for him.”
Patrick’s friends are also working to make his eye gaze works available for purchase. And they hope the money can be used to help pay for his medical costs.
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