Wednesday, July 22, 2009

This is Not My Mother's Wheelchair (Part 1)

When you can't walk, how the heck are you supposed to get from point A to point B?
In early 2008 I was alternating between an electric scooter and two forearm crutches in order to get around, depending on the distance that needed to be traversed. Over time I found myself using the scooter more and more and the crutches less and less. I realized that I was using a part time device, the scooter, in a full time capacity. A power wheelchair is much better suited for full time occupation. I know this, because my mother spent the last 39 years of her life in a power wheelchair.

So I began researching my options. Eventually I stumbled on the most amazing wheelchair- the iBOT 4000. I contacted Independence Technology, the manufacturer, and they brought a model to my house for a test drive. After the test drive I told my wife, with certainty, that I would somehow own one of these. The list price was about the same as a new car. Independence Technology, my primary care physician, and my neurologist all helped me petition my insurance company. The insurance company agreed to pay for exactly zero percent of the cost of the chair. It was deemed "not medically necessary". Heck, they wouldn’t even cough up the amount that they would have paid toward a traditional power wheelchair. Since there was no stopping me on this one, in July of 2008 my family and I pulled together the money and I bought the thing.

So what’s the big deal about the iBOT 4000? The iBOT is a wheelchair developed by Dean Kamen, the same gentleman who developed the Segway Personal Transporter, the first wearable infusion pump, and a bajillion other items that help improve people's lives. The iBOT has four operating modes. In standard mode the chair looks and acts like any other rear wheel drive wheelchair. This is the mode I use at home.

In 4-wheel drive mode the chair can navigate rough, uneven terrain. I have excellent traction on ice and snow, as well is in the rain. I can hike with my wife on many of the scenic trails along the coast of Maine, and I can go to the beach. In this mode I can actually climb up and down sidewalk curbs if there are no curb cuts where I want them to be.

In balance mode the chair operates on only two wheels, maintaining my balance while simultaneously raising me up to standing height (but still in a sitting posture). This mode is depicted in the image at the top of this posting. I can move about in balance mode, or stand perfectly still. My height is adjustable so that I can see eye to eye with people between 5'4" tall and 6’ tall. When I'm in this mode out in public people can't help but stop me and ask me how the heck I am doing this. I give a variety of answers ranging from “seven on-board gyroscopes” to “magic” depending on my mood and who is asking.

The fourth mode is the stair climbing mode, depicted below. Yes I can climb stairs- up and down. If the stairs have a solid railing I accomplish the climbing by myself. If the stairs do not have a railing then my wife is trained to assist me. How many stairs, you ask? I can climb stairs until the batteries go dead or the cows come home, whichever happens first.

I've taken the iBOT with me on business trips at least a half dozen times in the year that I've owned it. The chair folds up nicely and stows away with the checked luggage on a plane. I've gone to beaches and parks, private homes, my daughter’s upstairs apartment, and old inaccessible restaurants. I use the chair all day, every day. It does everything it's advertised to do and a little more. It's a miraculous device.

This is my first wheelchair. I've never owned a traditional chair. If the iBOT ever becomes unavailable to me, that loss will have a negative impact on my lifestyle. It would represent a significant step backwards in terms of my personal accessibility to the world around me.

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