‘Locked-in’ stroke victim lived to serve others

Bob Veillette sits with his family and listens to a child play piano in August 2012 at the Howard Whittemore Memorial Library in Naugatuck. The annual recital is a tribute to Veillette, an accomplished piano player who hasn’t missed the event since a stroke left him paralyzed in 2006. –REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN ARCHIVE

NAUGATUCK — Bob Veillette of Naugatuck, whose devastating 2006 stroke left him mute and paralyzed but did not deter his drive to serve others, died Sept. 13 at Saint Mary’s Hospital.

He was 72.

The former managing editor of the Republican-American lived in Naugatuck and spent 40 years at the newspaper.

In 2011, Veillette participated in a $40 million research study that tried to decipher the brain’s neuronal language to help those who could not speak “communicate” by translating neural signals and sending them to a prosthetic device. After a year with a sensor implanted in his motor cortex, Veillette was able to move a prosthetic arm, control a cursor and type words just by thinking about it. The groundbreaking advance, published in the scientific journal Nature, made national and international news.

“Bob was an extraordinary man,” said Dr. Leigh R. Hochberg, director of the Center for Neurotechnology and Neurorecovery at Massachusetts General Hospital and lead author of the study, who called Veillette “a true pioneer.”

“He helped us learn how to harness these powerful brain signals, recorded by a tiny array of electrodes, for the control of external devices. Literally and figuratively, he helped us to turn thought into action,” Hochberg said.

When he agreed to the research, Veillette was aware that it would do nothing to improve his physical condition. A brain-stem stroke cripples the pathway from the brain to the spinal cord, often killing its victims or leaving them significantly impaired. Such patients are said to suffer from “locked-in syndrome” because they are literally trapped within their bodies with no ability to speak. Many can nevertheless live up to 20 years with the condition. Veillette lived 11.

“He participated in this research not hoping to gain any personal benefit, but to help to develop neurotechnologies that will help other people with stroke, ALS, spinal cord injury, or other forms of paralysis,” said Hochberg, whose study was funded largely through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Institutes of Health. “Our clinicians, neuroscientists and engineers continue to learn from everything Bob taught us, and his contributions will continue to inspire new hope toward restoring communication and mobility for people with neurologic injury.”

As Veillette later explained, “I am not doing this for myself, but for others.”

The selflessness was trademark Veillette. His son, Gregory, now a surgeon, remembered his father’s frequent injunction to “treat others better than yourself,” and, when faced with a morally thorny decision to always take “the harder right,” or the more difficult, though virtuous, path.

A devotee of Shakespeare and the piano jazz of Bill Evans and Dave McKenna, Veillette was known for sprinkling his conversations with bardic quotes, like “The readiness is all” and “So shines a good deed in a naughty world.”

Those literary invocations came to a halt on April 8, 2006, when, after giving a free piano performance at Silas Bronson Library in Waterbury, Veillette’s stroke hit. For years after, he “communicated” by raising his eyes as a series of letters was read to him. Through this painstaking, often frustrating process, Veillette was able to convey a modicum of his needs and emotions. For years, he refused the termination of treatment that would leave him to die, citing his indomitable Catholic faith. “I don’t have that right,” he told the newspaper in 2012. “Only God has that right.” At another point, he said, “I bear my cross ruefully and with grace.”

A series of brain seizures in 2013 and 2014 seriously impaired Veillette’s cognition and his ability to move his eyes. So compromised did his thinking and eye control become that he was no longer able to employ the “letter board” on which he had relied to communicate. Surgeons subsequently removed the sensor in his brain and his participation in the research ceased.

Veillette had been a vigorous supporter of better long-term health care that would relieve financial burdens on families like his, who wanted to keep their loved ones at home. From the time he was released from Gaylord Hospital in October 2006, Bonnie Veillette, his wife of 47 years, cared for him with a coterie of devoted health aides. For years, Veillette’s friends, co-workers and members of St. Francis of Assisi church held fundraisers to help pay for this treatment. Bonnie Veillette, who said her husband’s health had significantly deteriorated in the past several months, said she and her family found the support sustaining and “staggering.”

Among hundreds examples, large and small, of support: coworkers and friends launched an annual benefit 5K race in Waterbury; community groups delivered donations, with representatives meeting Bob in his living room. A Naugatuck firefighter ran the steps of the Empire State Building to raise money for Veillette, an avid runner who in the late-night hours after work at the newspaper used to make time for a neighborhood run.

Bob Veillette prior to his stroke in 2006. –REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN ARCHIVE

Sometimes, emotional support transcended practical needs. In September 2012, the Naugatuck Community Choir performed a concert outside the Veillette house, with him watching from his wheelchair in the driveway. Veillette and Charley Marenghi, who directed that show on the lawn, worked together to bring back the choir years ago after it had lapsed into inactivity.

“It was unbelievable how people have been supporting him,” Bonnie Veillette said.

Robert D. Veillette began his journalism career as a reporter for the Naugatuck Daily News. He joined the newspaper in 1969 and served in a number of positions, including city editor, assistant wire editor and wire editor, before becoming managing editor.

He graduated from what was then Post Junior College and later received his bachelor’s degree in general studies from the University of Connecticut. During the Vietnam conflict, he served in the U.S. Army, teaching journalism at the military’s Defense Information School, from 1966 to 1969. His father, Albert E. Veillette, taught him drums. But it was his mother, Agnes, who started him in piano lessons at age 7 and noticed an immediate aptitude. In adulthood, Veillette played for many civic and community organizations around Greater Waterbury, always for free.

“Bob was a good newspaperman, a good leader and a good man,” said William J. Pape II, editor of the Republican-American. “What befell him was a tragedy for him and his family he and they did not deserve. The newspaper men and women he worked with were devoted to him and he has been sorely missed.”