On Thanking the Swiss for More than Their Chocolate Dec 3, 2014

by RICK RADER, MD * EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

"Man is a tool-using animal. Without tools he is nothing, with tools he is all."  -- Thomas Carlyle

While I was working at my desk (drafting a policy paper on the appropriate number of times our nurses should attempt to "stick" a patient in trying to draw a blood specimen) Susan comes into my office to announce that a package had arrived. In her most infectious Southern accent she confidently announces, "Let me guess... it's a pair of old Tennessee license plates for your 1954 Nash Metropolitan." My outside interest in old cars is no secret to Susan. "No," I replied, "those came last Friday." "Okay, I guess it's the copy of Tim Shriver's new book that you have been waiting for to review for Exceptional Parent magazine." "No, that arrived yesterday while you were out getting your nails done." We have perfected our little game of "gotcha" for over 20 years. "Well then it must be a new supply of those New York City soft pretzels from your brother that you haven't stopped talking about since you moved here in 1994. Wait here I'll see if we have any of that weird mustard left." "No, it's not that."

Susan brings in a box about the size of a case of copy paper covered with plain brown wrapping paper and held together with reinforced tape. Recognizing the return address she announces that it must be the strobe lights we ordered for our new virtual dementia tour room. The virtual dementia tour room is a new addition to our comprehensive staff training program that offers our staff (and families of individuals with dementia) the opportunity to "experience" some of the challenges and sensory distortions that challenge individuals with dementia and Alzheimer's disease. It is engineered to have them exchange sympathy for empathy in their approach to supporting our individuals.

I start rummaging around my desk for a pair of scissors when she quips, "Move away Doc this is where my handy Swiss Army Knife earns its keep." Susan pulls out her red handled Swiss Army knife, and in one fluid motion selects a pair of scissors and handily slices through the tape. "It's simply ingenious," she announces as she leaves my office.

Ingenious it is I thought, and that thought was obviously shared by the Swiss Army who in 1893 ordered 15,000 units from Wegner, the Swiss cutlery company. If ever there was a gadget that reflected the expression, "Necessity is the mother of invention," it was the Model 1890 (the original designation of the Swiss Army Knife). The Swiss Army needed a dual purpose tool that would open canned foods and disassemble the Swiss service rifle, the Schmidt-Rubin M1889, which required a screwdriver for assembly.

The designers of the Swiss Army Knife were limited in the number of "attachments" they could use until they figured out a way to house the tools on both sides of the knife's body. Karl Elsener, the owner of the company, figured out a way to attach tools on both sides of the handle using a special spring mechanism that employed the same spring that held them in place. Over night they increased the tool carrying capacity of the Swiss Army Knife by 100 percent. The knife now featured a second smaller cutting blade and a corkscrew.

At the end of World War II, thousands of American soldiers bought the surplus knives in PX stores on military bases before returning to the US. The official name of the knives (in German) was Schwizer Offiziersmesser, which for the American GI's was too difficult to pronounce, so they referred to them as those "Swiss Army Knives." The name stuck and it is now known worldwide by that descriptive name. The current model contains "a main blade, a smaller second blade, tweezers, toothpick, corkscrews, can opener, bottle opener, slotted/flat-head screwdrivers, Phillips head screwdriver, nail file, scissors, saw, file, reamer, hook, magnifying glass, ballpoint pen, fish scaler, hex wrench, pliers, gimlet, compass, ruler and key ring." Newer versions also contain SB flash drives, digital clock, digital altimeter, LED light, laser pointer, and even an MP3 player.

The Swiss Army Knife has become part of our culture. One is displayed in the New York Museum of Modern Art and was further popularized by the television show "MacGyver," where the hero used a Swiss Army knife to get out of cliff hanging jams by constructing gadgets out of found objects. It was standard equipment on every NASA space mission.

While no tool box should be without a Swiss Army knife, a novel version of that indispensable instrument should be provided to every Exceptional Parent.
They could use scissors to "cut out" the useless statements found in many IEP's, a black marker to "edit" out harmful paragraphs on insurance forms, a shredder to handle cancellation notices of needed services, a recorder to capture the hurtful comments offered by school administrators or clinic staff, a laser pointer to identify insensitive patrons in restaurants and a "pulverizer" to deal with bureaucrats who seem to never "get it."

Washington Irving, the American author and historian provides us with a much needed and refreshing perspective on tools, "One of the greatest and simplest tools for learning more and growing is doing more." Learning more and growing sums up the never-ending pursuits of the "exceptional parent;" as well as their ongoing search for the tools to achieve those goals.

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