CLEVELAND, Ohio — A team of three men and one woman quietly watched as Brett Clingan and his wife Margie struggled to move the Army veteran, who has lost use of his legs, from his wheelchair to a bright orange handcycle.
Margie shifted Brett's limp legs to one side as he deliberately dropped to his knees, then twisted awkwardly onto the cycle’s seat.
No one lent a hand.
“You aren’t kidding that’s a pain,” said team leader Logan White, who was joined by fellow Invacare Corporation workers Jeremy Culmer, Nathan Kolli and Shan Blake.
Clingan has faced great difficulty getting around every day for the eight years, since a degenerative genetic disease took away the ability to walk from a man who once ran every morning.
“That’s what I hate about this disease — the loss of independence,” Clingan, 47, said.
Clingan wants an easier way to go cycling with his wife and their two adopted children. And a better means of transitioning from his wheelchair to his tractor and four-wheeler. He doesn’t want to just sit and waste away.
That’s why the Invacare Corporation workers recently came to Clingan’s home in Champion Township, near Warren.
To help him find a way.
Designing solutions for disabled veterans
The team is one of seven in Northeast Ohio that has been working since March 1 to design possible solutions for specific challenges facing six disabled Ohio veterans and a former Israeli counter-terrorism unit member.
There were some 4.8 million American veterans receiving VA disability compensation at the end of 2018.
The team's challenges range from finding an easier way for a quadriplegic veteran to activate devices that help him read books and watch TV, to providing the technology to help a vet lower himself to the floor to play with his children.
"Approximately 80 percent of assistive technology needed by individuals with disabilities is not considered medially necessary and therefore not paid for by health insurance," said Therese Willkomm, a clinical associate professor in the department of Occupation Therapy at the University of New Hampshire.
Those needs include solutions for carrying, lifting or transporting objects and products to assisting people moving in and out of beds, cars and showers, she said.
Seventy area designers, engineers, computer programmers, medical specialists and others volunteered for the debut of a program created by the Colorado-based nonprofit group, Challenge America, in conjunction with the VA Northeast Ohio Healthcare System, Cleveland Clinic Innovations & HIMSS.
Their innovations will be manufactured and tested April 25-27 in a “make-a-thon” at the Joseph and Helen Lowe Institute for Innovation at St. Edward High School in Lakewood.
The Challenge America Makers for Veterans (CAMVETS) effort is in keeping with the 10-year-old organization’s mission to connect “veterans and their families to resources and solutions that build community and give purpose to their lives.”
The program is part of a growing assistive technology “makers movement” in the U.S.
A potential market for helping others
The effort doesn’t end with finding a solution to an individual vet’s problem, said Dallas Blaney, Challenge America executive director.
CAMVETS seeks to take a successful prototype that could work for other veterans or people with a similar disability and find a business willing to make and market the product, Blaney said.
That business would reap the financial benefit, according to Blaney.
Cleveland a possible launching pad for innovation
Cleveland was chosen as the site of the CAMVETS debut because it’s “an amazing hub, a center of innovation in the health care sector,” Blaney said. “All the key ingredients are there.”
The plan is to offer two programs per year for the next two years, then take the concept to other regions of the country and ultimately to international sites.
“So Cleveland is really the launching pad,” Blaney said.
He estimated that the materials and other costs such as food, hotels and transportation for the veterans associated with the project will be $7,000-$10,000 per veteran. Those costs would be covered by Challenge America.
But “the potential value is huge, especially if we create some new products to improve lives of injured veterans” and their families, he said.
Blaney is confident of positive results. “I don’t think there’s much chance that we won’t find solutions.”
VA works with "trailblazers"
Each of the applicants chosen for this first “make-a-thon” faces a particular challenge that isn’t already being addressed by things available on the current marketplace or within the VA, said Danielle Krakora, health system specialist for the VA Northeast Ohio Healthcare System.
Krakora attended a similar event sponsored by a veterans group in Israel last year, which inspired the Challenge America effort, and described it as “truly amazing."
She noted that the local VA is extensively involved in CAMVETS, with personnel on each team, including biomedical engineers, technologists and mental health providers, plus resources of its amputee clinic and prosthetic lab.
Krakora described this first group of veterans in CAMVETS as “trailblazers,” and said some of the resulting solutions could lead to further research and development, and possible marketing that could “broadly impact veterans from across the world."
Vets seeking solutions
One Army veteran, from Warren, is impaired by spinal wounds from an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan, and wants to be able to lower himself to the floor to play with his children.
An Army veteran from Canton is a bilateral hand amputee seeking a solution to using his computer and phone more easily so he can return to school.
A quadriplegic Marine veteran, from Ontario, near Mansfield, is seeking a way to activate devices with his voice or other means to read books and watch movies without assistance.
Marine veteran James Spurgin, who lost most of the use of his right arm in a motorcycle accident, wants to lift a 409-pound rock with two hands.
Not just any rock, but a replica of the famed Husafell Stone of Iceland that has been used as a traditional test of strength for many years.
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