Thursday, January 28, 2010

My MS Story Chapter 30- Taking the iBOT Home

There can be no more intimate relationship between a mechanical device and a human being than that between a wheelchair and its owner. The dread that we feel about the possibility of needing such a device may be best captured by the phrase- “confined to a wheelchair.” Understandably, I expect that the most common question asked of doctors when they deliver a diagnosis of MS is, “Will I end up in a wheelchair?”

For me, that question was finally answered in April of 2008, when I tried out the iBOT. Ya, it was time for a wheelchair- this wheelchair.

In June of 2008 I placed the order for my iBOT. Like any good American, I charged the whole damn thing to my credit card. I had some plans of how to raise the money for this expensive device (I certainly had no help from my insurance company), but I couldn't wait until I actually had the money in hand before proceeding. Remember, I was on a mission.

A few weeks later I learned that my iBOT would be ready for pickup and training on July 11. I awaited this day with a degree of anticipation that was similar to what I felt leading up to my graduation from high school or my first day on the job after college (but not on par with my wedding day or the birth days of my children). It was a big, big deal.

Notice that I count my iBOT pickup day among my best days, not among my worst. I’ve learned through my procession of assistive devices that the bad days are those just before you accept a new adaptation. Those days are a struggle. The first days with your new assistive device, even though they mark an unfortunate milestone, are all about newfound mobility.

The day that I picked up my iBOT I underwent 8 hours of in-depth training. Kim accompanied me so that she could become qualified as a stair climbing assistant. What is that? Well, if the stairs I want to climb have an adequate hand railing, then I can climb them solo. However, many stairs do not have a proper railing, and that's when I need an assistant. Kim trained for about four hours that day to become qualified.

Kim and I arrived first thing in the morning at the same rehab hospital where I had been evaluated for the iBOT a couple of months earlier. This time, both Kate (the lady who gave me my home demonstration in April) and Joanne (the lady who conducted the detailed evaluation in May) were present for the entire day.

I recently read a book that describes the training regimen for Navy Seals. I see some similarities between Seal training and iBOT training. Sure, my iBOT training was only for a single day, and although Kate and Joanne sometimes used their “serious voices”, they rarely made me do push-ups and almost never shot live ammunition over my head.

cyborg But, as with the Navy Seal training, my instructors did force feed copious amounts of information into my head in a short period of time and made me practice and practice until I could clean my rifle, I mean operate my wheelchair, in my sleep. At the end of the day they tested me to make sure that I had mastered the necessary skills. And, as with Navy Seals, I came out a different person than I had gone in as. In my case, I emerged as this Cyborg that iBOT users morph into- an organism that has both artificial and natural systems.

I was required to demonstrate certain proficiencies in order to qualify for advanced privileges with the iBOT. For example, I needed to show that I could climb stairs solo in order to have that mode enabled. If I was unable to demonstrate that proficiency, there was a way for Joanne to configure the iBOT so that I could only climb stairs with the help of an assistant (Kim). I passed the solo stair climbing test.

There are several top-end speed settings on the iBOT, configurable only by an authorized therapist. Of course, I wanted to qualify for the fastest speed. I don't know if Joanne was messing with my head or not (drill instructor that she was), but early in the day she stated that new users never walk out of there, I mean roll out of there, with the fastest speed setting enabled. Later in the afternoon I was thrilled when she told me that she would configure my iBOT for maximum speed. Thanks Joanne- the frightened looks I get today from innocent pedestrians are priceless.

The programming for the iBOT is unbelievably complex. The logic is designed to keep the operator from doing anything stupid or dangerous. There are permissives, alarms, and indicators that provide guidance, and sometimes even take over control of the device. Kate and Joanne would sometimes scratch their heads and say things like, “You’re doing something the iBOT doesn’t want you to do, but I’m not sure what it is.” They would always figure it out though.

At the end of the day Kim and I had to watch a short film that graphically demonstrated what can happen when you operate the iBOT improperly. The actors were trained stuntmen. So far, I’ve not emulated any of the spectacular crashes shown on that video.

After my final exam I signed a bunch of papers, and the training was over. Smiles all around. Then, on the drive home, it was just me, Kim, and the iBOT. Kate and Joanne were no longer there, approving or disapproving of my every move. This was not unlike the drive home from the hospital so many years earlier with our first child- wondering if I was ready for the added responsibility, but excited about the future.

What a great day that was. Kate and Joanne were consummate professionals. With the iBOT no longer being sold, I don’t know where Kate is now. I think Joanne is still working as a therapist at the rehab hospital. I wish them both the best.

Here's a picture of the four of us celebrating the big day.


Left to right: Kate, Kim, Mitch, my iBOT in balance mode, Joanne

Perhaps I exaggerated. They don’t look that scary after all.

Some Links

For more information on the iBOT wheelchair, please see my four previous posts:

This is Not My Mother’s Wheelchair (Part 1)
This is Not My Mother’s Wheelchair (Part 2)
What Would Mitch Do? or WWMD?
My MS Story #29- The Wheelchair Decision

Also, to see my iBOT in action watch these two videos:

Taking the iBOT to the Beach
Taking the iBOT to Two Lights State Park


  1. That's quite a machine, Mitch. Is it still being sold? Anyway, I'll stick with my 3-wheel scooter, not as intimidating. As usual, I enjoyed your wonderful humor.

  2. Lynne,

    Unfortunately the iBOT is no longer being sold. For the details, see my post about it:

    Humor? I wasn't trying to be humorous :-)

  3. "The first days with your new assistive device, even though they mark an unfortunate milestone, are all about newfound mobility"

    Ramen to that!

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