During an early December afternoon, the walls of the basement at this Roosevelt Island specialty hospital and nursing home were lined with dozens of new, shiny leather-upholstered motorized wheelchairs, some specially designed for paraplegics and quadriplegics, waiting to be assigned to a new owner who would soon be able to experience a level of mobility and independence they’d never known.
The tradition of the wheelchair give-a-way was about to take place, thanks to the generosity of Wheelchair Charities and Coler-Goldwater’s chief benefactor, Hank Carter. Over the last 40 years, Carter has donated more than $25 million in modern, assistive devices to help patients and residents with mobility, transportation, communication and activities of daily living.
Carter’s generosity is well known by many inside and outside the facility. But behind the scenes and helping support the incoming supply of state of the art wheelchairs is a less known operation of skilled HHC staff mechanics and technicians who build, clean, repair, maintain, and customize these amazing devices that serve as lifelines to severely handicapped men and women who call Coler-Goldwater home.
“The motorized chairs come in parts. Each takes about two hours to put together. We build the seat and base, then connect all the wiring and charge the batteries,” says Mike Acevedo, Manager of HHC’s Wheelchair Diagnostic Repair Center at Goldwater.
Acevedo is one of a team of nine medical equipment specialists and repair technicians who serve as the “doctors” of this wheelchair “clinic” and routinely make repairs, inspect and sanitize a large inventory of over 700 power and over 1,500 manual wheelchairs. They are an integral part of the Departments of Rehabilitation Medicine and Occupational Therapy and fill wheelchair prescriptions to custom-fit them to the needs of patients in the rehab hospital operation and residents in the nursing facility.
In the basement of this old shop that has been around since the early 1950s, wheels, control joysticks, seat cushions, motors and rechargeable batteries fill the space like used car parts at an auto repair center. Nothing goes to waste and parts are cleaned and repaired, old wheelchairs are refurbished and new ones are delivered to excited children and adults looking forward to using the latest motorized model.
Further down the long hallway past the new chairs, many of the old manual chairs are folded neatly in storage, marked with the original owner’s ID number in case they ever want them back or want to take them home when they get discharged.
Over the years, the donated chairs have come with more advanced features. The latest model includes a fully integrated computer with visual and chin controls that allows the patient to surf the web, check emails, record and activate voice messages, and skype friends.
The regular cleaning and maintenance schedule that keeps the wheelchair team working around the clock is absolutely necessary to maintain the safety of any power wheelchair and prevent the need for more extensive repairs later. Every piece of the chair requires attention. Seat belt latches and breaks must work smoothly. Caster wheels must pivot and rotate freely. The rubber boot around the joystick needs to be in good shape. And all the charger cords and connectors must be tightly in place.
Most importantly, the team is very focused on ensuring patient safety.
“No one gets a wheelchair until after we have completed testing on all its parts, tightened all the nuts and bolts, put in controls for maximum speed, do the trial fittings and trained the patient to safely operate it,” Acevedo added. “We even update and adjust the seat cushions to help prevent skin sores.”
For the staff of the wheelchair repair shop there’s no greater satisfaction than seeing the men and women of Coler-Goldwater be able to get around on their own, participating in rehabilitation therapies, recreational activities and returning home with more independence, all thanks to their wheelchairs.
“It’s important for our residents to get out in the community. See family and friends. And maybe someday, they can leave here and start their own life away from an institutional setting,” added Acevedo. “The chairs are really the key to the outside world and a life of independent living for many of our residents.”