Saturday, May 28

Life is a breeze in customised wheelchair

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WOULD you wear a pair of shoes that is two sizes too big or three sizes smaller? They would most probably be very uncomfortable to walk around in. Continuous use could cause a host of problems to the feet, ankles and knees.

Likewise, a poor fitting wheelchair could cause anything from backaches to postural problems and pressure sores. It is, therefore, important for wheelchair users to use one that is properly customised to fit the body.

My first wheelchair had a reclining back rest. It was so heavy that two persons were needed to put it into the car
boot whenever I went out. I could only push it for a short distance. My subsequent wheelchairs were all off-the-shelf hospital types.

I yearned for one that was more aesthetically pleasing, lighter and easier to manoeuvre. I also wanted one that would last longer than three or four years before breaking down. Those that I saw on the Internet were very expensive and not available locally.

Sometime in 2010, I had saved enough and decided to get my first fully customised manual wheelchair. I could
not get a seating therapist in Malaysia who could measure me properly. Fortunately, I found a wealth of information on customising wheelchairs on an online forum on spinal cord injury called the Care Cure Community.

Members of this forum consist of doctors, nurses, occupational therapists and wheelchair users who were
very generous with their knowledge and experience. I asked a lot of questions and got a lot of useful advice and suggestions.

All in all, I spent three months researching on what would work for me. Different levels of paralysis require different settings. All factors were taken into consideration, including the tyres and type of push rims for the wheels. In the end, I was still not sure if I got all the measurements right.

The frame of the wheelchair that I was using then was partially broken. It was still usable but could break any time. It was in urgent need of a replacement. Throwing caution to the wind, I placed the order through an online
store dealing in such equipment in the United States.

The price from the online store was more than 30 per cent lower than that of retail. Even then, it cost me RM12,000 of which 1/10 of it went towards courier charges. The back wheels and cushion made up the other major components of the cost.

It was a nail-biting one month as I waited for it to arrive. One wrong measurement could render it useless. It
would be an expensive mistake that I could ill afford. I never stopped worrying until the day it was delivered to my doorstep.

The moment I sat on it, I realised that it was money well-spent. It was light and very manoeuvrable. My feet were positioned in a way that it reduced spasms. My posture improved tremendously.

The frame was made from aerospace-grade titanium. This material is more durable than aluminium which is
more commonly used for wheelchairs. Titanium is also twice as expensive and more difficult to work on.

Being a rigid wheelchair, it is not foldable. This makes pushing more efficient. Energy used for propelling is not lost in the flexing of the movable parts like that of a folding wheelchair. This also translates into it being lighter, requiring less maintenance and there being less possibility of parts breaking down.

Figuratively speaking, it fitted me like a glove. I was seated at a height that allowed optimal pushing. The seat was configured in such a way that I no longer slid down and had to pull myself back up all the time. I could sit longer hours without my body feeling strained. I have never felt so comfortable in a wheelchair before.

One of the problems associated with prolonged wheelchair use is repetitive strain injury, especially of the shoulders, elbows, wrists and hands. Tendons on the shoulders can become torn. The head of humerus, the upper arm bone, could become worn out.

At its worst, surgeries would be required to correct these problems. It would then take many months of rest and rehabilitation. Even then, one could never regain full strength or function after that.

My shoulders and wrists were beginning to show symptoms of such injuries. I was afraid of losing the use of my arms as I needed them for transferring myself and performing most of my activities of daily living. A full-blown injury would cause me to be bedridden and rob me of my independence.

As the result of spinal cord injury, I am living with a number of health issues that I could not have prevented. However, I am in a position to protect my shoulders from further injuries.

With that in mind, I feel that the amount I paid for the customised wheelchair is a worthwhile investment. As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Comments can reach the writer via columnists@theborneopost.com.