01/09/06 — O'Berry Center workers use creativity to make patients' lives easier

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O'Berry Center workers use creativity to make patients' lives easier

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on January 9, 2006 1:48 PM

At O'Berry Center, seven men make up "custom adaptation services," customizing whatever the residents need, from wheelchairs and beds to safety helmets and harmonica holders.

The department could more aptly be called an imagination station. With backgrounds ranging from welding and mechanics to construction, the men bring an array of talents and abilities that contribute to a recipe for success.

The goal is to integrate O'Berry clients into everything that an individual in the community would do, said Dr. Scott McConnaughey, medical director for the center.

O'Berry Center specialized wheelchairs

News-Argus/Phyllis Moore

James Albertson, left, and Thomas McLendon of custom adaptation services at O'Berry Center demonstrate a customized wheelchair created for a woman with a curvature of the spine.

"Whether utensils or plates, a harmonica holder, chair or electric wheelchair, anything that allows them to perform and get past the physical disabilities, the idea is that this group is tasked with removing the physical barriers to allow them to perform normal activities," he said.

The bulk of their labor involves wheelchairs. With an estimated 250 motorized and non-motorized wheelchairs on campus, the men are kept busy building and maintaining them.

Working with physical and occupational therapists, as well as direct care workers and doctors, they discern the individual's needs to better equip the wheelchair. From allowing the recipient to decide the color of the wheelchair's upholstery to building it at a specific angle, it is almost like a custom-made home.

"It's not just a chair. They're going to be spending 12 to 14 hours a day in it," Dr. McConnaughey said.

"It's like an extension of them, almost," added worker Thomas McLendon.

Advancements in technology have been helpful in accomplishing the adaptation process, said Tony Price, head of the department. Foam-in-place wheelchairs are now possible because of a high absorption, high density foam created in 1969 and also used by NASA as well as in ejection seats, seats on airplanes, and race cars.

Starting with a frame and a plywood box, the foam is poured into the framework and can be shaped to the contours of the client.

"It may be impossible to sit in a normal chair," McConnaughey said. "It allows them to be in a chair that fits their body. They can recline in a more comfortable position at other times."

The chairs are constructed to meet varying needs, such as a recent challenge for a woman with a severe curvature of the spine and body. The group designed a chair that would tilt in the opposite direction so that gravity could pull against the curvature.

"You'll find that nowhere else," Price said of the unique creation.

Dr. Frank Farrell, director of O'Berry, said there are numerous examples of items the department has come up with where such a product did not otherwise exist.

"I don't know where else it's available; it's not something you can go to the store and buy," he said. It starts with function, then is adapted to accommodate the person's skill level, he said.

"It's the imagination and the team and the ideas that they come up with," McLendon said.

"It's totally whatever comes to mind," added McConnaughey.

In one case, an individual had difficulty holding onto the small control to guide the wheelchair. At home watching his four-year-old throw a football, Price came up with the notion of attaching a miniature football to the joy stick control.

"The football was not designed for this. It can be anything that they see in the environment that they link in," McConnaughey said.

The department has also adapted beds on campus, elevating or conforming them according to medical needs. Likewise, they work with protective helmets, make vests and walking belts, and recently worked on a harmonica holder for a gentlemen with a posture problem unable to easily handle the instrument.

The efforts also support the work programs at O'Berry. They have helped with all the paper cutting machinery used in the center's stationary business and created a soap mold from a prototype as well as a cutter now used by workers in that program.

"I don't know anything over the years that has been presented that (they) haven't figured out," Farrell said.

"It's a learned art instead of a learned trade," said McLendon. "We brainstorm and try to figure out ways to overcome an obstacle."

It's a kind of "learn as you go" environment, Price said. Mostly, the team learns from each other, often putting their heads together and finding ways to be creative, he said.

"The philosophy is, you can't say the word 'can't.' It can be done; you just have to figure out how to do it," he said.

Price started out at O'Berry 23 years ago as a groundskeeper before working in the carpentry shop and then adaptive services. His co-workers also bring assorted talents to the mix.

McLendon has an excellent welding ability, Price said, while Lane Sutton owns his own upholstery business in the community and uses the expertise and sewing ability to upholster wheelchairs. Jeff Whitener, second in charge, has a vision for seeing the end result, so can look at a project and see what needs to be done, Price said.

Kevin Smith has a mechanical background, handy in doing repair work and maintenance on wheelchairs. And William Moore is a jack-of-all-trades, helping wherever needed, his supervisor said.

The newest member of the team, James Albertson, came on board less than a year ago. He has a background in carpentry but is also adept at sewing, Price said.

There is something new every day, the men say, and it's always rewarding to see individuals benefiting from the services.

"If you can adapt something so that someone can do something - making soap, being able to sleep comfortably in their bed, brushing their teeth, holding a fork, brushing their hair- it's just amazing to me the impact that they have," Farrell said.

"This group personifies how you can change the environment to make a better life for someone," McConnaughey added.