The pan sizzles as Army vet John Christensen separates an egg over a pool of butter. He pivots his wheels, propels his chair to the cupboard and stretches for the salt shaker. He’s back to the stovetop before the egg burns.

“It’s my first time cooking and standing in 32 years.”

The Minneapolis VA hospital has revamped the traditional standing wheelchair to help make paralyzed veterans more functional in everyday life. Having had this vision of a more mobile chair nearly a decade ago, its creator has finally seen a workable prototype come to life.

“For years I’ve felt so frustrated because my patients who could benefit from standing didn’t have the ability to move once they stood up,” said Dr. Gary Goldish, the hospital’s director of extended care and rehabilitation.

With help from a team of biomedical engineers, Goldish modified a wheelchair already on the market by adding a drive wheel that allows the push rim to rise so patients can reach it when they stand, Goldish explained.

Whether working in an assembly line, painting a living room, or reaching for a book, “the chair moves with the patient and gives them full functionality like we have when we stand,” according to Goldish.

In existing models, patients who can’t reach the push rim in the standing position are forced to sit before they can boost the chair and move themselves to a new location.

“They’re just hard to get going,” Christensen said.

The VA’s design also keeps the chair’s four wheels on the ground at all times, providing more stability — and much more maneuverability.

Standing pays off

Goldish began pitching his ideas in 2006. And though it’s not the first upright wheelchair, the VA hopes the doctor’s revisions will make it easier for paralyzed vets to complete daily tasks, and improve their sense of well-being.

“I’d just like to be able to see what’s in the cupboard, ” Christensen laughed.

Increasing functional reach comes with benefits far beyond the ability to grab a book from the top shelf. Because standing suddenly becomes convenient, patients will stand more often, reducing the risk of pressure sores from prolonged sitting, Goldish explained.

“If we gave them a chair that is functional, and that really is part of their life, they won’t have to be reminded to stand because it becomes routine.”

VA inventors funded the project with a $150,000 grant from the Paralyzed Veterans of America. Goldish and his team have asked for more money to correct the imperfections of their first chair.

“We found the drive wheel is too far forward … we need to move it further towards the middle,” Goldish said. Doctors said the next project will also address the prototype’s bulkiness and wide frame, making it easier to transport.

They hope to hear back from the PVA by March. With an additional $400,000 grant, inventors predict the developments made in the next project will result “in a commercially viable product.”

Paving the way

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that Minnesota is home to about 370,000 veterans, and nearly 90,000 receive pensions for a service-connected disability.

Ken Klein, president of the Minnesota PVA, said the wheelchair’s advancements will pave the way for further research and development.

“It can do things chairs couldn’t do before,” the Navy vet said.

While the MNPVA and other military advocacy groups do not normally offer insurance to help cover the cost of wheelchairs, Klein said it does make sure veterans “are receiving the benefits they’re entitled to.” He explained that those with service-connected disabilities often receive more benefits.

Existing upright wheelchairs can cost from $4,000 to $6,000. Power wheelchairs that use joysticks can sell for more than $30,000, Goldish said. Creators said they can’t predict how much it will cost to manufacture their adapted chair.

The chair has grabbed the attention of local news stations and many VA supporters.

“We’re kind of all over the Internet now, and that’s not what we were hoping for, ” Goldish said. “I really just wanted a product that works for my patients.”

 

Tina Munnell is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.