Robotic mowers fund research for rare chromosome deletion

“Standing in front of you is the reason why I build these lawnmowers- this Super Hero right here. If anything, all I ask is to spread the word about Chromosome 18 deletion. The more the public is aware of this condition, the better chance these kiddos can thrive. My hobby is just a bonus and my contribution to the condition,” said Matt Sabo when sharing this photo of his daughter, Andi, 10. (Submitted Photo)

By Angela Simmons, Weekly Editor

An O’Fallon father is putting his mechanical skills to the test crafting remote controlled lawnmowers, and donating the proceeds to research for a rare chromosomal condition that affects his daughter.

Active duty U.S. Air Force Tech. Sergeant Matt Sabo lives in O’Fallon with his wife Rachel and their three daughters. Sabo’s middle daughter Andi, 10, has a rare chromosomal condition called Chromosome 18 P-.

“The p stands for the short arm of the chromosome. There’s also individuals out there with a Q, which is the long arm, and the minus is for the deletion. So basically, she is missing the top part of her chromosome in 18. With the research that has been done, they found the missing parts attach to 15 and 22 chromosomes, so the body does try to ‘fix’ what it knows it’s having an issue with, but it will be like that forever,” said Sabo.
The deletion causes “a full array of issues. internal, external, mental, physical, it’s everything,” said Sabo.

He added that “everything” includes “delayed development, low muscle tone through the whole body. The biggest issue with Chromosome 18P- and low muscle tone is incontinence-not knowing when you have to go to the bathroom. We fought and fought for years with doctors when we were stationed in Omaha.”

He put his promotion testing on hold and dove into research texts to help Andi. “We confirmed with a neurologist that she had a tethered spinal cord, which is common if you follow the lines, to where basically, she has no feeling with going to the bathroom. Once the neurologist cut that nerve in her spine, everything was perfect. So that was one little part fixed,” he said.

According to Sabo, Andi also “suffers from ADHD, speech apraxia, severe hypertonia, issues with fine and gross motor skills, she’s nonverbal- that’s a big kicker with any kiddo that has 18p-. She can understand, but for people trying to understand her, chances are slim to none until you’ve been around her and can understand the way her words come out. She does have a speech device and can carry on a full conversation.”
Andi receives a wide array of treatments like speech, PT and OT, that mean the family is usually gone five to six days per week, though Sabo says they are now all online.

He said his 11 year old and three year old daughters play with their sister like normal siblings would, but added that Andi’s older sister will defend her if other children pick on her.
Sabo grew up in Smithton and graduated from Red Bud High School, and Rachel grew up in Rebud. The pair returned to Illinois in May 2019 when Sabo was stationed at Scott Air Force Base.
Sabo said one of the largest benefits of moving to the area has been finding Andi’s pediatrician, St. Elizabeth’s HSHS Dr. Guy Venuti.

“He has been simply amazing. He’s a doctor that just doesn’t want to treat surface issues, he wants to dig and find the cause. He’s the first doctor we’ve had like that, and I really like him. Best doctor we’ve ever seen, hands down,” Sabo said of Venuti, who is also a military veteran.

There are only two doctors specializing in Chromosome 18 deletion in the entire world, and The Chromosome 18 Registry and Research Society is in San Antonio, Texas. The registry monitors the patients, which Sabo said is around 155 total, and if there is money in the registry’s coffers, they bring families to the center when they need help for testing, anything that the patients may require for care, or “anything they can to help.” They also hold annual conferences, which Sabo said feel like family reunions, in different cities.

“What’s horrible about it is our funding isn’t the greatest. The last email we got for 2019 said there was maybe $700,000 brought in, compared to more well known conditions, which have millions of dollars and hundreds of doctors researching them,” said Sabo.

His idea for the remote controlled lawnmowers came when the family lived in Omaha, and their Jack Russel terrier had a grass allergy.

“We had to mow the grass really really short. Jack Russells also dig a lot of holes, so the wheels of the mower would go into the hole and the handle would go into my gut. IT wasn’t a fun thing. I got tired of it and told Rachel I was just going to buy a riding lawnmower and she said no. So, over one weekend, I built my first remote controlled lawnmower with some Power Wheel parts,” Sabo said.
It was a hit, and Sabo set to work on making “bigger and better working machines, that are also faster and more efficient.”

He currently prefers using John Deere model mowers and Power Wheel batteries, but has several other 22 inch models, including one with an adjustable deck that doesn’t have to be charged. He purchases the parts or makes what he can’t find to craft the mowers, and sells them beginning at $1,000. He is also working on other remote controlled projects.

“It’s all about working smarter, not harder. I guess I’ve been given a gift, so I might as well utilize it. If i can turn something out that looks good, and works well, then I can make money off of it. The proceeds go to Chromosome 18 research center,” he said.

Sabo added “As long as my parts are covered, the rest will go to them. If I can start a decent business from this, possibly expand enough to make it my career, they’ll get even more money. It’s a niche market, growing slowly. People in the UK are watching what I do, but it’s hard because right now, I don’t have a website or a YouTube channel, and then I have my military service.”

The crew chief spends his days “working on airplanes- taking them apart, putting them back together, and getting them back up into the sky.”
He presented his lawnmowers to the robotics team at OTHS, and said the students “were just fascinated” with them.

Sabo hopes eventually to not have to use a controller, and instead of 22 inch mowers, to go 48 inches or bigger. “I mowed my neighbor’s with my big red mower and it took almost 2.5 hours, and she’s got a double lot. I’m working to find something more efficient, but for small residential yards, these are great,” he said.

Sabo has sold two mowers recently. “As soon as I posted them on my facebook and instagram pages, in five minutes, both were sold.”

He has a Facebook page strictly for the mowers and news about Andi called Concept2Reality.
“That’s how this started- a concept drawing on a napkin that wound up becoming a real thing. It sounds so corny, but that’s how it worked out,” he said.

For those interested in the mowers, visit the Concept2Reality Facebook page and send a direct message.