My Baby is 20 Years Old!

My Baby is 20 Years Old!

A Short Story About the Birth of EasyStand

BY ALAN THOLKES

www.easystand.com

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 ACCIDENT – 1976

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!

Comments

One Response to “My Baby is 20 Years Old!”
  1. Thanks for sharing this story!

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