March 04, 2021

Wheelchair Wrangler

by Richard H. Daffner, MD, FACR

Richard H. Daffner, MD, FACR, with one of his “patients” at Global Links along with a background of spare parts.

Retirees often fill their time volunteering their services for a large variety of charitable organizations. Six years ago, while working on a carpentry project at a local food pantry, I met my ophthalmologist, also a retiree, who had been volunteering there with his wife.

Every other week, he had also been working at Global Links, where they, along with another couple, had been packing surplus medical supplies for shipment to Central and South America. He found the work interesting and suggested that I use my skills with tools to repair wheelchairs. I have been volunteering at Global Links ever since.

Global Links is a nonprofit organization in the Pittsburgh area that was founded in 1989 with three primary goals:

  1. The recovery of medical surplus from local hospitals.
  2. The establishment of long-term programs in Caribbean and Latin American countries to improve and have a sustained impact on healthcare.
  3. The reliance on volunteers for most of the labor-intensive sorting, preparation and packing of recovered materials.

For nearly 30 years Global Links has developed a productive partnership with the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) as well as with in-country Ministries of Health and the medical and administrative leaders of existing public health systems in their target regions.

In addition, Global Links has a worldwide impact through their Suture Donation and Medical Service Trip programs. Global Links collects surplus sterile sutures, not only from the Pittsburgh region, but also from hospitals across the U.S. and redistributes them to resource-poor hospitals around the world. The medical service trips allow healthcare professionals from western Pennsylvania to improve health conditions in communities throughout the world.

More recently, Global Links initiated the Community Partners branch to coordinate with local safety net organizations such as free clinics, human services charities, woman’s shelters, crisis nurseries and maternity care homes.

Community Partners provides basic health and hygiene supplies for the homeless as well as mobility devices (canes, crutches, walkers, wheelchairs) for western Pennsylvania residents. The majority of the donations come from the two large hospital systems in the Pittsburgh region, Allegheny Health Network and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC). In addition, individuals are encouraged to donate surplus mobility devices.

The Global Links building is 40,000 square feet and houses approximately 5,000 boxes on the shelves as well as another 3,000 items — hospital beds, tables, chairs, examining tables, IV poles and several thousand pieces of durable medical equipment — canes, walkers, crutches and wheelchairs.

Donated supplies, many of which arrive in original manufacturers’ cartons, are carefully sorted and packed, after being entered into the inventory. When Global Links receives an order they can quickly find the items using a computerized inventory system.

I am one of a group of six “wheelchair wranglers,” who work in our wheelchair workshop that is separate from the main machine shop. Volunteers in the wheelchair facility have basic mechanical skills, similar to those needed for bicycle maintenance/repair. Our job is to select chairs and thoroughly inspect all parts as well as make sure that wheels turn, brakes hold and all parts are present.

Most of the wheelchairs donated to Global Links are well-(ab)used. Many require the removal of IV pole and oxygen tank holders (attached to prevent theft from the hospitals). Other chairs are missing parts, which we endeavor to replace from our supply of spare parts cannibalized from chairs deemed beyond repair.

In addition, we have a small supply of new parts, such as wheels and seats. My colleagues and I have found that the hardest part of our job is finding compatible wheelchair replacement parts. It is not unusual for us to adjust the brakes; straighten leg rests; patch small tears in arm and leg rests, seats and seat backs; or replace or suture patches if the tears are too large.

Every attempt is made to pay attention to cosmetics, that is, to ensure matching colors for seats, leg pads and arm rests. Once all repairs are made, each chair is thoroughly cleaned and then tied up for shipping. On average, it takes about four hours to recondition one wheelchair from start to finish.

There are, inevitably, a small number of chairs that are deemed unsuitable for repair. These are carefully disassembled and stripped for parts. Any part that is removed and cannot be reused is recycled.

Our rebuilt wheelchairs do not stay at Global Links for long. I am sure that the people in these medically indigent areas are grateful for the caring volunteers and staff at Global Links. I am proud to be part of the team helping people in these areas.