Jennifer Smith, age 45, is a proud wife and mother to two children. She was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at a young age, thyroid disease in 2005, Multiple Sclerosis in 2006, and Heart Disease in 2013.
In 2013, after suffering from a heart attack, she began to lose her ability to stand or walk for longer than five minutes. This began her withdrawal from activities with her family.
For 5 years she sat at home, not wanting to inconvenience anyone and daydreaming of how active she used to be. Her family suggested it was time to look at wheelchairs so that she could continue to participate in everyday events.
In April of 2018, it was suggested she visit the Abilities Expo in Edison, NJ to look at the possibility of purchasing a wheelchair. It was at the Abilities Expo that Jennifer discovered the Velochair.
Jennifer no longer sits at home. She has the opportunity to go on walks with her husband in the park. She can pedal to her parents’ home a few blocks away. She takes frequent trips to the mall, the grocery store, and the craft shop. For the first time in 5 years she is living her life again.
Jenn: Everyone stops me. I hand out the pamphlets. I give them all the information I have.
Jenn: I like it because I still have function of my legs but I can’t stand that long so I wasn’t ready for a wheelchair. I wasn’t ready to be pushed everywhere but when we go to the store, I wind up sitting half the time and I don’t see anything and we don’t go anywhere together because I have to find a place to sit.
Jenn: We went to the Abilities Expo looking for a wheelchair but when I saw this. That was it. We were so excited.
Jenn: My family and my husband pushed me to go to the Expo even though I really didn’t want to but they said that eventually if I want to go anywhere with the family, I’m going to need a wheelchair. When we first saw the Velochair, I was hesitant about it at first but I was really impressed. We walked around for a bit just to see what there was but we didn’t see anything like it. Just your standard wheelchair.
Jenn: At first I was like nah it’s ok, I don’t want to try it and then Ken was like just sit in it. Take it for a spin. Once I got in the Velochair, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to pedal but it is so easy. I only have strength in one leg but the strength is building up in the other now. Once I figured out how to maneuver it and use the steering tillers, it was so easy. I love it.
Dani: So you definitely feel like you’ve gained some more muscle?
Jenn: I feel like my weaker leg is now stronger than the leg that is fine believe it or not. (pointing to weaker leg) My doctor did some strength tests and she said that I have more muscle.
Dani: Aside from doctor’s visits, where have you guys taken the chair?
Jenn: We go to the park. I go shopping, we went to the mall. We took it to the town parade. Everyone was asking me what the chair was and saying they had never seen anything like it before. I was like I know because it’s new!
Jenn: This chair has opened my world. I think of all the people it can help as well. I want to see it flourish so much. People don’t realize how much freedom it really gives you. I didn’t realize it just by going to that expo. I was hesitant to even sit in it like I said and Now that I have it, it’s opened up our world. We can go out together as a family and do things together.
Dani: You’re not the only one who was hesitant to sit in it at first. What was your apprehension?
Jenn: I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to push the pedals and I didn’t want to look weak. I thought it was going to be more like a bicycle and it was going to be harder and I can’t ride a bike because I can’t stay steady. You don’t have to do that with the chair. It just glides. I was just unsure, I saw everyone riding around in them but that was my biggest fear.
Jenn: My son loves it. He’s only 14 but he’s so excited by it. He’s always asking where we are going to go. It’s a family bonding experience.
Jenn: As for the steering on the chair, it’s intuitive. Usually when you get into something new, it takes some time to learn but I just started pedaling and took off!
Emily Zammataro is an 88 year old who lives in New Jersey. At age 79, Emily had a double knee replacement, and a Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement (TVAR) by age 86. Six months after her procedure, Emily experienced a stroke, which created limiting weakness on her left side including her arm and leg.
Following a five month in-and-out patient physical and occupational therapy experience, Emily was introduced to the Velochair.
Emily now uses the chair 6 to 8 times a week. In addition to home-based physical and occupational therapy, her routine includes doing laps around the streets of her community which she estimates to be about 2 miles a day. She recently used the Velochair to shop around a popular indoor mall near her home. It has enabled her to meet new neighbors and remain socially active while strengthening her body and mind.
Dani: How long have you had the chair now?
Emily: Three months.
Frank (Emily's son): She had a stroke in march and then the flu so was in and out of the hospital but it wasn’t until the tail end that we started her in the chair.
Dani: So you feel that even in three months of having the chair, you feel like you’ve built up muscle and strength?
Emily: With the chair, I saw a great improvement in my legs. I had weakness in my legs from the stroke but it improved a great deal. Lately, since I haven’t been able to take it out every day due to the weather, I can feel some of the weakness coming back but even after a month and a half of using it in the beginning, I could see a difference.
Frank: Her debilitation was primarily on her left side so she has weakness in her left arm and her left leg. She uses a walker to get around and she does daily exercise and in fact, we log her daily progress with the chair daily. We put a spreadsheet together for her home care so her occupational therapy routine, we added in the Velochair to log distance and time.
Emily: We go out together and I let the OT set the pace and then I follow her about four times around the development.
Dani: Have you taken the chair anywhere else outside of just the surrounding area?
Emily: We went to the mall, shopping to buy a new TV and things.
Frank: She gets around great. It’s very easy for her to use.
Emily: When I’m riding the chair, I focus on pushing the leg that is weakest.
Dani: The laps that you’re doing around the development how far are you going mileage wise?
Emily: 2.8 miles every other day.
Dani: Do you feel like once you get out of the chair and you have a little time to relax that you’re walking is better?
Emily: Yes much stronger.
Emily: So many people stop me and ask about it. And they ask what is it?
Frank: Another thing that I think is really important to bring up is the mental value.
Emily: I can get out. I’m not stuck in the house. I have access to the outdoors. My cardiologist loves it.
Frank: I think the mental lift it provides is really vital. Not being bound to a walker or a cane. When we had gone to the Short Hills Mall, we were in one store and I turned around and she was already on her way to the next one on her own and I think it builds her confidence up to not bound.
Emily: Before this I couldn’t get out at all. It gets me access to outside and to be around people and I feel wonderful with it. I’m not a young person. I just turned 88.
Frank: If you talk to cardiologists and people who deal with heart conditions, being mobile is part of the problem. The blood isn’t flowing as well and plaque can build up but in this particular case, I believe not only does Velochair help you psychologically and physically in terms of strength but I think it can help from a cardio perspective as well in terms of improving blood flow through the body.
Frank: I think another thing that is important for Velochair is the community that it can create. For example, a neighbor of my mom’s expressed interest in one and if she got one and my mom has hers now they can do things together. You know, could there be an opportunity for users in this are to come together and meet at the mall on a Sunday morning and have an activity. It creates social interaction which is supercritical to longevity.
Frank: And this is just a personal opinion from the son of an 88 year old who had a stroke, I think it’s allowed me to do something with my mom. I don’t feel inhibited in any way shape or form to be like “hey Mom, let’s go to the park or the mall.” I actually think it’s allowed me to have a different relationship with her and interact at a different level so she doesn’t feel homebound.
Michael Byrnes is a 64 year-old husband, father, father-in-law and grandfather. Mike, a retired software engineer who lives in NJ, suffered a spinal cord injury at 59 leaving him paralyzed on the left side of his body.
Dani: What did you used to do for work?
Michael: Work was what brought me out here to New Jersey. I was working for Western Electric and Bell Labs. That then turned into Novell and then eventually Hewlett Packard right around the time of my accident. That was four years ago in November of 2015.
Dani: Can you tell me a little bit more about what happened?
Michael: I was down in Puerto Rico for a wedding. My son had a destination wedding and thank god this happened the day after the wedding. He had the wedding Friday night and Saturday morning I went for a swim out in the ocean. I was going to meet a bunch of people who were farther out in the water. I began to float on my back and I saw a wave coming in so I turned over and thought I’ll ride the wave in. The wave ended up taking me down and I hit my head on the seafloor. I knew at the time I was paralyzed. I couldn’t move anything below my neck. I came up for a gulp of air and I went back down and that was the last thing I remember. My son and my son-in-law who were farther out, turned around and saw me floating so they came to get me. They took me out of the water and there happened to be an EMT and his wife on the beach that resuscitated me. From that part on I’m just going by what people have told me happened next. The police arrived and they wanted to put me in the back of a pickup truck and someone else said no you can’t do that you have to stabilize his neck. So we waited for an ambulance and they took me to the hospital. Eventually, I was diagnosed with a broken C3-C4 vertebrae and there was nothing they could do. I was there for a week. My family worked with insurance and they were able to get me airlifted out to Teterboro a week later. I got to Morristown Hospital and that’s where they operated and put a brace in my neck. I was in the hospital for a week and then I went over to in-patient care at Kessler for three months. I’m very lucky.
Dani: How is your condition now? Have you gained strength back?
Michael: It’s very slow but I have. At first, I wasn’t able to do anything. When I was at Kessler they had to transport me out of bed to a wheelchair. When I was released in January of 2016, I was not able to stand on my own. I had to get in and out of a car using one of these slide bars but over time and between therapy at Kessler and home therapy, I’m now able to get myself up out of the chair on my own and use a walker. I’m starting to get strength back a little bit. My left side was totally paralyzed. That’s what I’m really recovering from. My right side is relatively strong. I’m starting to get feeling back. That was the other thing. I had no feeling at all. It was one of the things that was just really annoying. I had no feeling in my hands and I’ve got some of that feeling back now which is great. They had categorized the injury as an incomplete injury. If it was complete I would have been a quadriplegic.
Dani: Do you use the chair every day?
Michael: Not so much in the cold weather but in the nice weather I was going out max maybe three times a week but two times a week was pretty regular.
Dani: How far do you think you were going?
Michael: I was getting out to four, five, six miles. I was slowly migrating my way to town. I was able to make it down to Columbia Park where there’s a track and a football field and they have a nice half mile loop that you’re able to go around. It’s been great just getting outside, I’ve been seeing people I haven’t seen since I had the accident which has really been good.
Dani: Is there anywhere else that you have taken the chair on outings?
Michael: One place I had gone to last year, I had to make an appointment to go talk to my son’s principal over at the high school. I rode the chair over to the high school and I made an arrangement before I got there. I talked to the secretary and the principal and I said, “I have an unusual request. I’m coming in on this bike wheelchair. I know the main entrance has a step but there’s an entrance to the auditorium on the side but it’s locked. Would you mind unlocking the door?” So she let me in and I was able to ride through the school and make it into his office. He got a kick out of it.
My wife and I sometimes put it in the car and go to a few places. In Piscataway, there’s Johnson Park and there are some trails over there. There’s the New Jersey Village where there are a bunch of old houses that were going to be destroyed and they renovated so I can ride in and out of there. Duke Island Park has some nice trails.
Dani: So, from one marathoner to the next, can you talk a bit about your life before the accident? You sound like you were and still are a very physically active person.
Michael: Oh yeah, I used to run every morning. They started to have a 5K in town about 20 years ago. I started to challenge my kids to see if they would run. So I would get up every morning and run three or four miles. Then one year I tried to get my wife to run the 5K with me and she said, “You run a marathon, I’ll run the 5K.” So that’s what I did. I ran Boston and I ran New York.
Dani: Oh well, no sweat, those are only the two biggest marathons aside from Berlin. What else do you need to do?
Michael: Well I had to qualify for Boston but since I was working for Hewlett Packard, they were a sponsor so they had x number of spots. I didn’t make it initially but I kept bugging the woman who was in charge. It came to the month before the marathon and she called me up and said, “Are you still interested?” And I had just run New York and I said, “Yeah! Of course!” And she said, “Alright you’re in.”
Dani: You have to be fast to qualify for Boston.
Michael: You have to be much faster than New York. “Heart-break Hill” is around the 17 mile mark. I got to the top of it and I was like, “oh wow this is great. I made it.” But the downhill after that was the worst.
Dani: People don’t think about that but that is the worst part. Your legs are Jell-o at that point. That’s so funny. So wait, did your wife do the 5K?
Dani: Oh come on! You have to hold her accountable!
Dani: Have you thought about doing a 5K in the chair?
Michael: If they still had the 5K in town I would.
Dani: Do you feel when you are consistent with the chair you feel a difference?
Michael: It’s a great work out for my left leg and the next day it’ll be sore which is great. It’s great to be able to feel it.
Dani: It is funny, we’ve had a lot of people who experience hesitation when first trying the chair. They’re afraid to get in it. They’re like “Oh no, it’s not for me, I can’t use it.” And then once they get in it, they immediately realize how easy it is. And a lot of people who stumble upon us, find us because they’re looking for a solution outside of a wheelchair and so that’s the constant remark that we get like, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” And our response is always, well that’s because nothing else like it exists.
Michael: I was limited with the wheelchair because it’s really hard to get this thing up over lips and inclines. It’s impossible but I wanted something that I could propel myself with.
Dani: My last question for you, is what is a word of advice you would give to others who are struggling with mobility challenges?
Michael: The ability to get around on your own is so important. I was hesitant to go out alone and at first my wife would ride next to me on her bike when we went out. Then eventually, I was like ok I can do this. Finding a way to have your freedom and get exercise. This is an alternative. The one thing I’m working toward, I need someone to help me in and out of the chair. I can almost hoist myself out of the chair but if I were able to do it on my own and use it whenever I want, that’s my end goal.
David Guinivere, 61, has muscular dystrophy, a disease that has affected his legs, core, and arms. David was diagnosed 28 years ago and is a retired software engineer.
David: I’ve had the Velochair for 3-4 months and I use it for exercise around the neighborhood. I feel I’ve gained some more strength when I keep up with using the chair.
Dani: Do you have a goal in mind that you think you want to achieve through the velochair?
David: Right now my challenge is being able to stand up again and I’m really hoping to do that. I also want to try to make it to the other side of the neighborhood.
Dani: When was the last time you were able to stand independently?
Dave - Probably a year ago.
Dani: Do you think it’s mainly muscle mass that you need to build up?
David: Yes and from sitting in the wheelchair things are constricting.
Dani: And you feel in the velochair you’re able to stretch out a little more?
David: My legs yes.
Lisa (David’s wife): He has muscle contracture in his hips and the backs of his legs and so when he’s pedaling he’s stretching his legs out.
Dani: So you’ve had the chair for three months. It would be interesting to see where your strength stands after a year of using the chair.
Lisa: He’s improved some of his strength since getting the chair. He could not make it down to the end of the block and back. I’d have to push him back. Then he got to the point where he could make it there and back with a rest in between. Now he can go down and back without a problem. It’s a half a mile so he has improved his strength.
Dani: Now that you’ve been using the chair for a few months and seen its benefits, do you think there is a market for this chair to help other people like yourself?
David: Yeah I think it’s great for anyone who wants to strengthen their legs or get a workout. I’m also diabetic so that kind of exercise also helps.
Lisa: It also makes it more interesting. We can walk the dog, walk around the neighborhood, meet the neighbors. I’m hoping he will get fast enough that I can ride my bike instead of walking next to him.