By Jeremy Helligar
October 13, 1997 12:00 PM

A STEADY TAPPING COMES FROM Jim Jatich’s bedroom as the former design engineer sits at his computer, typing his first e-mail message of the day. Propped in his wheelchair, he holds a pencil with his left hand and deliberately taps the keyboard with its eraser. Clenched in his right hand is a second pencil, which he also uses to press the keys. “Thut… thut-thut…”

Jatich, 48, an Akron quadriplegic, won’t be setting any speed records this morning, but the miracle is that he can type at all. The man he credits for that miracle is Dr. Hunter Peckham, 53, the Cleveland-based researcher who has dedicated his career to restoring movement—and hope—to those who are paralyzed. In August, though, the movement Peckham was happiest to see was strictly bureaucratic: The Food and Drug Administration had finally approved the sale to the public of the Freehand, the neural prosthetic that Jim Jatich first tested 11 years ago.

Developed by Peckham and a team of 25 doctors and researchers, Freehand uses implanted electrodes to stimulate paralyzed muscles in arms and hands. NeuroControl, the company licensed to market the device, estimates that 54,000 with paralyzing spinal injuries in the U.S. who have retained minimal muscle control—movement in either their wrist, elbow or shoulder—are candidates for the device that has been Peckham’s dream since his days in graduate school.

“When I started working with paralyzed people, I thought, ‘But for the grace of God, that could have been me,’ ” says Peckham, director of the Functional Electrical Stimulation Center, a consortium of university and hospital researchers dedicated to restoring movement to paralyzed muscles. “There comes a sense of purpose, and you realize what contributions you can make.”

Among the 63 people already using the Freehand is Chad Johnson, 23. Two years ago, while a sophomore at Kent State University, Johnson fell face-forward during a fraternity tug-of-war and snapped his neck. Paralyzed from the neck down except for some movement in his right bicep and wrist, he withdrew into a cocoon of depression, spending weeks in his bedroom simply sitting in the dark. Introduced to Peck-ham last year, Johnson agreed to have electronic devices implanted into his arm and chest—a decision he now credits for “changing my outlook on things.” Johnson is now applying for admission to the USC film school. Though still wheelchair-bound, he credits Peckham for restoring his ability to do all “the little things that people wouldn’t think of, like taking a razor to your face, cleaning out your own ears, being able to go out to a restaurant and feed yourself.”

The Freehand, which costs about $50,000, consists of a tape recorder-sized minicomputer programmed to send radio signals to a microprocessor implanted in the chest. This unit in turn receives instructions from a tiny controller that is manipulated by muscle movements in the wrist or shoulder. It then sends electronic impulses via silicone-wrapped wires to muscles in the hand to trigger grasping and clenching motions. “It’s not going to be enough for everybody,” Peckham concedes, “but it becomes easier for people to do things—to be a writer if they want to be a writer.”

Peckham developed an empathy for the disabled early in his career. The oldest son of an Elmira, N.Y., package salesman and his wife, he earned a doctorate in biomechanical engineering from Case Western in 1972 and soon after was offered a chance to work with paralysis patients at a Cleveland hospital. “It was intimidating,” he says. “They were people my age, but they had lost a lot of the things I still had.” In 1977 he met Jim Jatich, the victim of a diving accident who had been left without movement in his fingers and one wrist.

After nine years of R&D, using Jatich as his test subject, Peckham implanted in him a prototype Freehand.’ Six months later, Jatich typed his first !words on an electric typewriter. During the following years, the pair formed a bond that endures to this day. “He is my brother,” Jatich says simply.

In addition to the extended family of those he has helped, Peckham has two children—Indy, 25, and Greg, 24—and a wife, Sara, whom he met when they were sixth-grade Sunday school students at Elmira’s First Presbyterian church. If Peckham’s research leaves him less time than he’d like to spend around the brick split-level they share in a Cleveland suburb, there are compensations. He talks eagerly of the Freehand technology’s potential to aid victims of stroke or even to help paraplegics walk again one day. “You find out that you can offer something that hasn’t been possible before,” he says. “And if you can do that, it’s a gift.”