My Baby is 20 Years Old!
My Baby is 20 Years Old!
A Short Story About the Birth of EasyStand
BY ALAN THOLKES
Name: Alan Tholkes Diagnosis: C6 C7 Incomplete Quadriplegia Date of Onset: April 1976 founder of Altimate Medical, Inc. Let’s back up a minute and reflect on what led up to the design of the EasyStand…
I am now going into one of those dreamlike states like what you see on TV…. going back in time… things are getting wavy… the year is 1976, it is April 25th about a week before my 18th birthday. I felt free and happy as can be, finally out of high school and through about four years of major teenage rebellion. It was water under the bridge and I was now looking forward. I enrolled in a local technical school for a career as an electronics technician, back in the day when people would actually repair a broken TV or radio. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do for a living, but I’ve always been attracted to electronic stuff. I thought I’d like to create new electronic gadgets, if playing guitar in a famous rock band didn’t work out.
THE CAR ACCIDENT1976 I was at an outdoor party at a farmhouse in the southwest part of rural Minnesota, a bunch of local musicians would get together and jam all day on a makeshift stage, we’d eat roasted hog and drink beer from a keg. It was a beautiful sunny day with a bright blue sky and popcorn white clouds. I decided to spend the night at the farm site and went to sleep in my rust colored 1971 Dodge Charger muscle car (it had a 383 magnum engine, the speedometer went to 150). A friend woke me around two in the morning and pleaded with me to give him a ride home so he could get to his construction job in the morning, I sleepily agreed. I wasn’t feeling the effects of the few beers I drank earlier but I was tired.
About halfway home on my twenty five mile journey I fell asleep at the wheel and woke with my Charger wrapped around a tree about thirty feet into the ditch and my head twisted between the white bucket seats. My left leg was wedged between the driver’s door and the seat, I was pinned in and smoke was filling the interior of the car, the engine was still running. I didn’t understand why I could barely move my arm and why my fingers wouldn’t close to grasp the key so I could shut the car down. My girlfriend at the time was sitting in the front seat next to me; she was unconscious from smacking her head on the dash. I yelled as loud as I could “shut off the engine, it might blow up!” After yelling several times she finally woke for a moment and turned it off. The next thing I remember is the piercing sound of metal being bent and ripped apart as the “jaws of life” contraption was peeling the door off my shattered leg which I could not feel.
Lots of bright colorful lights were flashing from several emergency vehicles. They illuminated the lonely stretch of highway in dead of night. It seemed there were people everywhere. The friend who I was transporting home was in the back seat, he was unconscious with a fracture to the neck but no damage to his spinal cord. My passengers had a full recovery but from that moment on I was classified a C6-C7 quadriplegic. I could no longer stand, walk or open and close my fingers or a few million other things that I’m sure readers of this who have a spinal cord injury can relate to.
STANDING AT REHAB AND COLLEGE
We’ll fast forward a couple months to rehab at the University of Minnesota hospitals, I was taught by caring therapists about how to eat, live and take care of myself in my new SCI lifestyle. Several times a week I was put in a stander, I liked standing even if I needed a machine to help me do it. I was told it was good for me, but at the time I didn’t care much about that, I just liked the change of view. After leaving rehab and moving back home with my parents so they could help take care of me, I was prescribed a wheelchair, given a foam cushion, but no stander.
A year later I enrolled in a college only thirty five miles from my home and at the time it was one of the few colleges in the state designed to accommodate wheelchairs. I had to come up with a new way to make a living, my rock star career or anything that required finger movement was now off my list. So I thought maybe something in business since I could still think. I had a great time at college and learned a lot about life and living on my own in a wheelchair and even some very useful knowledge about operating a business (even though I didn’t study as much as I partied).
One thing they had at the college rehab gym was a stander that I would use once or twice a week at most, but it was hard for me to use without help. I had to try and position a strap under my butt like the one at rehab. The difference was at the U of M rehab the therapists did all the work. I didn’t mind my female therapist hooking me up, but I didn’t like the idea of my friends having to do it. How are you supposed to hold yourself up and put a strap under yourself? If I only had a third arm, I would transfer off my chair to a cot, put the strap on the chair, transfer onto the chair, and hope I didn’t mess up the strap in the transfer. Then I had to wheel up to the stander, hook up the straps, and if all was positioned right, I’d stand. The process sucked and it was complicated but it still felt good to stand. Except for the times when your butt is poking out the straps and some girls walk by. I remember thinking, “I wish it was easier to stand so I’d do it more often.”
SSI AND GOVERNMENT CHEESE
Moving ahead several years to 1985, I had just closed a retail waterbed and music store I had started in my hometown three years earlier with a $5,000 loan from my mom. I would say the 10+ hour days, and 6-7 days workweek was my real education in how to operate a business. Although it didn’t last I had some success and learned a lot. When I closed the store, I was broke and had no job.
There wasn’t a lot of job options for a quad in my area. Most of the workplaces had stairs and required tasks not physically possible for me. I just wasn’t content living off the generous $224.41 social security check I received each month from Uncle Sam and I was getting tired of the free cheese I would receive from the church parking lot. Once I paid for my living expenses like rent, utilities and heat, I didn’t have much left over for any fun things like food or clothes. I remember looking many times in my old round top refrigerator from the 1950’s (I had to stick some foam window weather stripping around the door to help keep it cool inside) and seeing nothing but a block of half eaten cheese.
A BUMP ON THE HEAD – THE START OF ALT
I was in my fairly new “lightweight wheelchair” which medical assistance had purchased. These new performance chairs were just introduced in the early 1980’s. I really loved how easy it was to push, it was light years ahead of my 50+ pound chrome E & J wheelchair. Now I could go places I could never go before and it was a cool color which I thought made me look “cooler”. However, I had one problem after another with something breaking.
I was in my kitchen by the sink and as I lifted myself up pushing on the tubular steel arms, I heard a loud snap as the weld broke and the wheelchair arm gave way. The edge of the kitchen counter provided a stop for the top of my forehead as I was heading for the floor so I didn’t fall out of my chair, however, I was knocked a little silly and the new gash in my head was bleeding quite a bit. I went to the hospital to have it checked out and they gave my seven stitches.
The next day I was looking in the fridge, and after staring at the cheese for a bit, I then planned my next venture. I figured I had to make my own opportunity, I decided to call the manufacturer of my wheelchair. I told the customer service person vibrantly about all the problems I’ve been having with their product and about the seven stitches in my head. I told her in a stern voice that I want one hundred dollars for each stitch in my head and I want it in one week and I repeated, “that means I expect a check here for seven hundred dollars in seven days or will immediately contact an attorney to deal with this.” I received a check for $700 a week later. I thought it was fair and I now had the seed capital for my next venture ALT Design (ALT are my initials the company later changed its name to Altimate Medical Inc).
I began work right away on my new company. I decided to design a new “quality” lightweight wheelchair that would revolutionize the wheelchair industry and improve the lives of wheelchair users everywhere. I carefully used the first $20 to purchase scissors, glue, paper, pencils, a ruler, straws, toothpicks and some office supplies. I started drawing, designing and making models of wheelchairs. I like to say I was “motivated because of current product dissatisfaction” but deep down I was sick of the welfare cheese.
I had 3 objectives in mind:
(1) I wanted a chair that was lightweight and rigid
(2) I wanted a chair you could make narrower while in it, i.e. small bathroom doors
(3) I wanted a chair that would fold as small as a briefcase with the wheels off.
THE FIRST WHEELCHAIR PROTOTYPE
My childhood years that included countless hours building stuff with blocks, model building kits, metal erector set complete with nuts, bolts, servo motors and pulleys paid off. I thank God I didn’t have the kind of mindless toys and video games kids play with now. I had to create stuff with next to nothing using my hands and imagination. Soon I had designed an innovative scaled down mechanism with straws, toothpicks, cardboard and glue.
The folding mechanism would open and close a wheelchair keeping the wheels straight (no toe in or out) and allowed someone to narrow the chair while in it and it folded as small as a briefcase. Next I decided to make a full scale prototype. I had used around $18 to buy pizza and beer to celebrate. I only had about $662 left to build something that would be good enough to entice potential investors to bring it to the next level. I borrowed an old welder from my uncle who had a farm, and brought it home to set it up in my 8’x9’ kitchen. I then unplugged my stove, plugged in the welder and purchased some 7/8” round 16 gauge steel tubing and some other metal shapes and sizes. I borrowed a cut off saw and drill from a friend and I had another friend who knew how to weld (if I provided a few beers he’d do the welding and basic fabricating). I was able to round up miscellaneous wheelchair parts like brakes, wheels, and casters from an old wheelchair that I had laying around. I used up the $700 but I had a workable full scale prototype.
With my wheelchair prototype, complete business plan, and three years of sales experience I was able to sell my idea to an investor whose money helped me move forward. Many things happened in the next two years that were critical in getting the business started (which would take pages to talk about).
THINKING OUTSIDE THE WHEELCHAIR
A little before 1988 I realized the wheelchair product line I had started the company with was not generating enough cash for the business to survive, and I need other products to market. I now had some resources, equipment, design experience and a few smart production and fabrication people around. We created several fairly innovative products but the one thing always on my mind was from my rehab and college experience in 1976. I wanted to stand and I wanted it to be easy for me and for others. I began designing a standing frame in 1988.
I knew I didn’t want to use a strap, I didn’t like the pressure on my butt and on my knees as I went to the standing position and it was hard to use the strap. I wanted to be from my wheelchair to standing in seconds (my goal was under a minute) and I wanted to feel more secure. I figured the best method is to transfer to a seat with a back and have it lift you. I felt if someone couldn’t transfer they would have an attendant to assist them, it was still much easier then using the strap. I remember working with my employees designing, fabricating, welding prototypes late in the night.
I was the guinea pig since I was the one in the wheelchair and only I would know if it felt “right”. I would try them out, hoping a tack weld wouldn’t break (or my leg from some unforeseen stress). In product design if you make even one small change anywhere it affects countless other things. We were trying to get a good product designed and to market as quickly as possible. Money was always running out and getting harder to find.
After over a year of work and many prototypes, we finally had the first standing frame designed, tooled up and ready to introduce to the market. We were going to call our new standing frame the “StandEx” because we had designed an exercise attachment that could be used while standing. The night before we were going to print our first brochure we decided at the last minute to rename it the “EasyStand”.
It just sounded better and reflected what the product was really about. We called the printer first thing in the morning and had the name changed. We received our first marketing pieces a few days later and we sold our first EasyStand in September 1989. The first EasyStand design was extremely heavy and crude compared to today’s EasyStand but it worked great and the concept has never changed.
I believe there are still a few of our first EasyStands around, still standing people and lifting people’s spirits. The rest is history. In the past 20 years many talented and caring people have helped improve and expand the EasyStand product line, and many options and accessories have been added. The EasyStand product line has helped over fifty thousand people of all ages all over the world live a healthier and better life and it will help thousands more in the future.
Happy 20th Birthday EasyStand! Keep up the Good Work!