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Published August 11, 2020

THE VIEW FROM MY SEAT

Replacing a wheelchair is not that easy

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

I spotted a screw on the living room floor. Another screw and a washer appeared the next day. What was going on?
It was my wheelchair. It was coming apart.

My wheelchair company had been advising me for months that it was time for a new one, but I have been reluctant. For those of us who never leave home without it, replacing a wheelchair is a monumental decision.

Wheelchairs have come a long way since the first chair was patented in the U.S. in 1869. The first steel, lightweight, collapsible wheelchair was invented by two mechanical engineers in 1933. It’s now a $2.9 billion market for manual chairs and a $3.9 billion market for power chairs.

There are more than 3.5 million wheelchair users in the United States, and each of us has a preference on everything from foot plates to size, weight, and cushioning.

There are several reasons I have been hesitant to switch chairs.

My current wheelchair is custom-built to accommodate my 6’5” height and, importantly, I have never in eight years developed a dreaded pressure sore.

Also, I was employed when I acquired the chair so my employer’s group insurance paid for it. Now retired, if I wanted a new chair, I needed to deal with the government and Medicare. I worry I might not get a comparable replacement.

So, when I took my disintegrating wheelchair to the dealer, it was with the intention of replacing some nuts and bolts, not getting a new chair.

This time, however, I was told emphatically that the chair wasn’t fixable: The webbing supporting the cushion I sit on was coming loose from the frame. The threads were stripped. It was risky to continue using it.

My procrastination had caught up with me. Now my journey through the bureaucratic maze was about to begin.

“Okay,” I told the repairman, “let’s order a new one right now.”

It’s not that easy, he said. He explained we couldn’t order a new chair until my doctor, who already checks me several times a year, evaluates me face-to-face again. She then must sign a certificate of necessity saying I needed the wheelchair.

Did the government think I had been faking it for eight years?

If you have tried to get a doctor’s appointment lately, you know that my face-to-face appointment wasn’t going to happen as soon as I needed it.

“What do I do in the meantime?” I asked the repairman. “Can I get a loaner?”

Nope. The repairman told me I couldn’t get a loaner until I actually ordered a new chair.

So, let’s review. I have an unfixable chair that is no longer safe to use. I can’t order a new one yet because, despite the fact I have been in a wheelchair for eight years, I need a certificate from my doctor. And a loaner is out of the question because I haven’t ordered a new chair yet.

Confronting a bunch of Catch 22s, I asked the repair guy, who was quite nice and only doing his job, what I should do. He said he had a temporary fix, but he couldn’t do it himself because it was an “unauthorized repair.”

Following his instructions, I searched for the nearest AutoZone. You can imagine the look on the clerk’s face when I told him I needed six radiator clamps for a wheelchair repair.

Once home, my wife and I used the clamps to fasten the webbing to the frame. Because it was only a temporary fix, I looked for a board to place across the chair for further support. I couldn’t find a board, but I did find a kitchen tray that worked.

You will be glad to know I am no longer procrastinating. I called my doctor to schedule my in-person evaluation for my certificate of necessity. I have an appointment in late September.

In the interim, if you see someone in a wheelchair with radiator clamps sticking out and sitting on a kitchen tray … that would be me.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)