SD Dispatch Fits Wheelchairs In Guatemala

Mar 22, 2017

A group from the Sioux Falls area is back in South Dakota after distributing wheelchairs to people in need in Guatemala. The Dispatch Project team members worked at a wheelchair seating clinic. They adjusted chairs to fit the needs of children and adults with disabilities.

SDPB's Kealey Bultena participated in the trip to Central America. Listen to her description of the experience as she talks with In The Moment host Lori Walsh here, and read select stories below.

It's a noisy room. A young boy grins as he glides across the floor. He’s sitting in his brand new wheelchair, and Morgan Fischer giggles seeing his joy.

"He was just really excited to even see the chair and for him to know it was his. Then even when we were doing adjustments, he took my tool and was trying to do it himself," Fischer says. "We showed him where the wheels were, and right away he tried to move it, and so we had to put the brakes on so we could finish adjusting before, but now he took off, and there he goes!"

Rachel West and Heath Oberloh take measurements for a wheelchair.
Credit Kealey Bultena

Fischer is one of fourteen people who boarded a plane in Sioux Falls, South Dakota early one day and stepped onto Guatemalan soil in the afternoon. On a Monday morning, team members work in a frenzy fitting wheelchairs through Hope Haven International. Wrenches clink against the metal wheelchair frames. 

The group is in Guatemala near a town called Santo Domingo Xenacoj. The space resembles a large garage. The floor is concrete, and sound bounces off of bright walls painted purple, green, orange, yellow, and red. Lightly padded benches delineate different stations for wheelchair fittings. In an adjacent room, Guatemalans wait their turn.

Minutes before the Sioux Falls crew sets to work, a local expert offers a crash course. He explains different measurements to take and why some that seem redundant are absolutely necessary. 

The clients move into the room, and the direction is simple: go. A girl dressed in one-piece dinosaur pajamas is the first child in front of Mick Conlin. She snuggles against her mom and watches the man from Sioux Falls use a yellow tape to guage ideal wheelchair settings.

Mick Conlin and Jordan Braa adjust a backrest and supports.
Credit Kealey Bultena

"Just like the measurements and keeping them straight and understanding what they were. It was pretty straightforward, even with language things. It was just kind of pointing and adjusting," Conlin says.

Jordan Braa works with Conlin and a physical therapy student from Guatemala.

"Learning the process and not understanding where different pieces should go until they pointed it out," Braa says. "I think we’re a lot more comfortable now than 10 minutes ago."

Team memers adjust the girl’s wheelchair to the right dimensions. Braa watches as she rolls away.

"Her mother seemed excited. She seems to really enjoy the chair," Braa says. "I mean, it should be life-changing."

Loud banging fills the space as fitters use brute strength to adjust wheelchair pieces. Across the room, three men from the Great Plains work on a wheelchair for Irvin. The six-year-old sports a vibrant red shirt and a black hat made of stocking cap material, and he is skeptical.

Irvin watches as workers adjust his new wheelchair.
Credit Kealey Bultena

Under Irvin’s watchful gaze, Jeff Veltkamp from Sioux Falls details the adjustments necessary for the right wheelchair.

"We had to move the backrest forward quite a bit to fit into the small of his back. He’s a little bit larger, so we had to remove some of the padding that was in there originally, so that was the majority of it. And they’re tight-fitting so we had to pound on it," Veltkamp says. "He seems pretty happy at this point. I think he thinks we’re a little weird. He keeps looking at us funny. Pretty sure we are..."

The once tentative Irvin soon embraces his new friends. He’s nearly hysterical during a game chasing down South Dakotans in the parking lot, and Irvin repeatedly throws a ball back and forth with volunteers.

Fitting the wheelchairs is a critical goal on the mission, but another priority for these Americans is connecting with Guatemalan people. Some bond by crashing small toy cars with the children. Others offer candy from the United States as sweet bribery. Still more push wheelchairs up the inclined lot, so kids can set their shiny wheels in motion and careen down the slope. They squeal and beg to do it over again.

Heath Oberloh from Sioux Falls has evidence of his connection to Guatemala on his t-shirt.

Heath Oberloh makes a friend in Guatemala.
Credit Kealey Bultena

"It’s a mixture of tootsie roll, saliva, and dirt. Yeah, it’s a badge – a badge of honor," Oberloh says.  

By the time the group finished, thirteen people had wheelchairs when they used to be carried everywhere. Most of them were children, but two of them were adults. Jose is 20 years old and had never had a wheelchair. Anabella's mother had carried her everywhere she went for 26 years before the wheelchair she received last week.

One teenager shows extreme patience during his wheelchair fitting. Eddy Rolando lies somewhat twisted on a bench. He wears pilled maroon pajama pants and an off-white t-shirt. His black and white ankle sweat socks are nearly worn through. When crew members help him sit up, the full extent of his deformities shows. Eddy’s back has grown sideways. His right shoulder and ribs jut out inches farther than his left.

"He has posterial tilt," Hope Haven's Sergio says. 

"Yeah, but it’s fixed," another replies. 

Sergio assesses 15-year-old Eddy Rolando to determine the best supports for his first wheelchair.
Credit Kealey Bultena

An independent training wheelchair consultant with the World Health Organization happens to visit during this fitting. He and Sergio discuss how to best support Eddy’s body in his first chair.

He’s not yet a man, but, at 15 years old, Eddy is no longer a boy. His mother can’t miss work, so a cousin travels with him to the wheelchair distribution. Sergio translates.

"She help his mom to brought him, because moms work and she also work and leave his kids at home just for coming here for the chair, because they really need it. They have sometimes maybe 12 hours in a bed and then in a cushion, and they put it again, doesn’t go out too much out the house," he says. "So with a chair, it’s going to be easier. They can go to the market, they can go to church, they can go out to park, have an ice cream with everybody, so it’s going to be easier for them to take care."

Eddy clutches two toys: one is half of the body of a Toy Story character that he brought along, and the other is a small Captain America action figure keychain he just received.

Eddy Rolando holds Captain America.
Credit Kealey Bultena

Eddy has cerebal palsy. He understands people around him, but he can’t communicate in any material way. His hips are stuck at a sideways angle, so wheelchair experts focus on bolstering his upper body. It starts with an electric knife.

A physical therapy student plugs an ordinary electric knife into a portable outlet. Wood trim surrounds the power source. A piece of black tape runs around the bottom for good measure. He turns it on, and the buzz of the blades echoes. The student has a rough marker outline on square piece of foam several inches thick. He carves out space for the hump of Eddy’s back layer by layer until it fits.

Fitters manipulate the foam until it suits Eddy. They extend the armrests to accommodate the extra padding. They lean the boy back in the wheelchair to build supports for his angled legs and feet. Then – with Eddy still in the chair – they drill new holes straight through the frame of the wheelchair. The metal screams.

With a few screws and harness clips, the new supports keep Eddy steady. He gets a wood tray to brace his arms and hold his belongings. One hour and 45 minutes after he first lay down on the bench, Eddy is upright in his very own wheelchair.

Local workers say they see many Guatemalans coping with spina bifida. That disease takes hold in the first eight weeks of pregnancy if a mother lacks folic acid. They also help people who have problems that are easily fixed in the United States but that they can't correct, which leads to extensive health problems.

Wheelchair recipients and their families learn about caring for the chairs.
Credit Kealey Bultena