By Ziggi Landsman
It’s amazing how time flies! Over forty years since a young streetwise punk from The Bronx strolled into an assistive technology center and had his first encounter with spinal cord injuries (SCI).
Hell, I had seen and met SCI before then but didn’t know it. On the streets of NYC back then they sure weren’t called anything as correct as a person with a spinal cord injury.
It was a center run by the Veterans Administration and the place was jumping with SCI. Vietnam was still hot and combat injured SCI were being saved at a much higher rate than in previous wars. WW2 and Korean War vets were much younger and active then and all over the place.
Assistive technologies such as wheelchairs and prosthetic and orthotic devices were much more primitive and many devices and components had to be custom made. No, don’t even think about fat catalogues and websites crammed full of assistive technology devices.
I was an apprentice orthotist at the time. No kidding! An “apprentice”. A not very glamorous position that included sweeping floors and fetching coffee twice a day while you tried to glean precious pearls of wisdom from the closed minds and mouths of senior staff. The goal? To get practical experience, get your schooling in, pass your boards, and attain “Certified Orthotist Practitioner” status. Which to everyone’s amazement I somehow managed.
Wheelchairs! That was the glue that first got me stuck on SCI. Or maybe it was SCI that glued me to wheelchairs. Wondrous devices, an aggregate of technologies designed to move and liberate people. And who needed more liberating and moving than people with a spinal cord injury?
So into the world of wheelchairs and SCI I was thrown with the blessing of most of the other staff who considered people with SCI demanding and cantankerous and who much preferred a more placid audience to ply their trade on. Many of my coworkers considered me a “sucker” or a “dumb rookie” for willingly taking on so notorious a group. But I fooled them because it really turned out to be a love affair.
The years and the thousands of encounters have not in the least diminished the excitement and challenge or the satisfaction. Many of the people I have met and befriended are still in touch and although I no longer actively participate in wheelchair clinics, many contact me for advice whenever they need a wheelchair or have a seating problem. To this day, nothing pleases me more than seeing the right wheelchair under the right wheeler.
While aging is not high on my list of favorites, it does however come with some benefits. It’s actually comforting to be at this end of the spectrum and to have a track record. Being able to look back and know that I made some friends and made a difference. Remembering the odd primitive wheelchairs of the past and seeing what the future rolls out.