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Iron Has the Smell of Blood

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From an early age, I realized I could never become Iron Man – not because I wasn’t a billionaire, a genius inventor, or Robert Downey Jr., but because iron has the scent of blood.

On select summer Sunday mornings, my grandfather would take me on his motorcycle, navigating the narrow alleys of Taipei as I hugged him from behind. When we passed by the livestock section, I would cringe at the sight of chickens bleeding out from their throats. My grandpa would pull me close and cover my eyes, knowing that I couldn’t bear to watch.

At home, my grandmother explained to me the small device inside her that regulated her heart. “Qǐ bó qì”, she called it, which I soon learned was “pacemaker” in English. She told me that because of it, she couldn’t fly to the States to see me, with a look of regret in her eyes. I didn’t mind, because I figured I could just visit them instead. I always looked forward to those summers in Taiwan, reconnecting with my grandparents and brushing up on my broken Mandarin. Back in the U.S., I bragged to my friends that my grandma was a cyborg.

Eventually, my grandfather developed a heart condition as well. My parents decided it was not safe for him to drive, so my uncle took his place, motorcycling me to the markets. Still, I would accompany my grandpa on his treks to the hospital for his weekly check-ups. The bustling Taipei streets, with its cars and motorcycles and pedestrians, no longer seemed like an inviting adventure, but a host of potential hazards to avoid. I worried for his safety and his health.

He would still joke with me, suggesting I become a doctor so that I could treat his condition at home, but he knew full well that I couldn’t handle seeing something as simple as chicken’s blood.

Each time I departed from Taoyuan Airport, in addition to my luggage for that summer, I would also carry the weight of my worry for my grandparents’ hearts. Despite being an ocean’s length apart for the rest of the year, I wanted to do something to help them.

I had just finished designing an automated pet feeder, and coming fresh from that engineering experience, I decided to develop a comprehensive cardiac monitoring system. I named my vision iCordisX (the X was added for coolness points) —a custom solution for at-home diagnosis— and set out sketching concepts of the wearable system and detailing pages upon pages of features I planned to implement.

Upon completion of my first prototype, I showed it to phD student Nitish Nag of UCI’s Institute of Future Health. He was skeptical. “I’m not sure what to tell you, Patrick. Cardiologists have historically been more accurate than computer software at interpreting ECGs. Without reliable data, your algorithm is useless.”

While I processed the harsh reality, thoughts of my grandparents pushed me on. I went back to the drawing board, tweaking and preparing a 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th prototype for additional trials. Throughout the development, I met with countless cardiologists, pitched to entrepreneurship organizations, surveyed local senior centers, and tended to myriad software bugs, broken hardware, and dashed expectations.

Finally, I found myself watching the steady blinking of the Bluetooth module’s red LED slow to a solid green glow—the wireless connection was now online. Hands trembling, I slid the sensor onto my right wrist and pushed the button for transmitting data. My own heart jumped when the steady flow of my ECG popped up on my app, the windowing algorithm smoothly displaying real-time results.

I wished my grandparents could have been there, but I could only resort to the next best thing – scrambling to open a video chat.

Though I still can’t stand the sight of blood, I found a workaround—my own bloodless way to help my grandparents and others like them.    

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