A Wheelchair for Taylor- An Epic Journey

Keely’s famous last words “It is surprisingly easy to travel with a wheelchair internationally.”

It started with a frantic search a few weeks before we left, to find a wheelchair for Taylor. The Superkids team met her a few years ago and as she has grown, it is increasingly difficult for her to get from one location to another.  We needed to find something.  And we got one just in time, thanks to the donation from the Children’s Institute in Pittsburgh.  We thought that was the hard part… it wasn’t.

Keely brought the chair on the airline and straight through customs. We thought that was the hard part… it wasn’t.  This chair traveled with us in the back seat of a taxi in Shanghai and an open trunk as we raced through Ping Xiang. Each time we finagled it into these tiny cars, we thought that was the hard part… it wasn’t.

It came out of the international flight and a domestic flight a few days later slightly wounded. One of the bolts that connect the frame to the seat back had come loose.   The team was unfazed—this would not be a problem.  Man, were we wrong.

You see, the challenge was, the bolts in the wheelchair are SAE (or as we learned they say here in China, “inch”). Not metric.  Our search for a fitting bolt strangely started as we dropped our laundry off around the corner of the hotel.  As we each placed our items on the counter—a stately woman entered and immediately began passionately talking to Gongzhan.  We got a little nervous—had we done something wrong?  No, in fact, we hadn’t.  Ms. Jane as we came to know her was the proud owner of the laundry facility, and she couldn’t be more thrilled that we were there.  She not only did our laundry, but immediately took the bolt and insisted we go shopping—she would find a replacement bolt and bring it back to us at the hotel.

After the first failure, the hotel maintenance crew, she insisted on calling a driver to take us to the hardware district.  Gongzhan stood with Keely and Keith as the van pulled up.  As we started to get in, Gongzhan suddenly said “I cannot go along, I have a meeting” and closed the door.  He smiled and waved goodbye.  There we were, complete strangers. Keely and Keith—not a lick of Chinese—and Ms. Jane and the driver—not a lick on English.  Keely turned to Keith and said “I don’t even know the name of our hotel!?”  Keith didn’t either.  What an adventure this would be!  

Arriving at the hardware district (after a 30 minutes drive) 4-5 blocks of small shops with every array—from tools to wood to plumbing to drywall.  It was like an open-air Home Depot in 100 different garage doors.  We stopped at our first bolt shop.  Loud slow talking in each language, exaggerated gestures, lots of head nods— all the workers and Ms. Jane frowned and shook their head no. We would not find our bolt here.

Next store. No. One last chance with a bolt manufacturing shop.  After measuring and thread comparisons - still no.  We returned home, bolt less – or as some might say – with a screw loose.  Ms. Jane got us home.

A few days later,  with some brainstorming, Keith, Nancy and Keely started taking things apart—fiddling, changing orientation, and solving some problems—we could make this work.  We just needed a wrench and 4 bolts/washers and they could be metric. They just needed to be long.  Keith downloaded a picture of a wrench and made friends with the maintenance man at the hotel and came back from the hotel kitchen with tool in hand.   Then these three, and Wendy (Gladney in-country staff from Changsha) set out on foot in Ping Xiang to find the four bolts.  They could be metric…this would not be a problem, right? Wrong again.

After thirty minutes of walking, stopping in multiple shops, digging through mechanics spare parts piles and being told to walk a little further, we finally decided to hail a cab.  No cabs. So Wendy, with her quick thinking, hailed a motorcycle— and announced that she and Keith would go together.  On the motorcycle.  Now, for those of you who don’t know Keith, he is 6’8” and 260 lbs…and wearing shorts with legs white from a long Wisconsin winter.  Wendy on the other hand, is a cute, tiny Chinese woman whose picture appears in the dictionary under “sprite”.  Keith is more like Shrek.  He has been a tourist attraction for the people of China—everyone stopping him to take selfies with him.  When he climbed on that motorcycle with Wendy sandwiched between him and the driver it was a neighborhood spectacle.  Everyone around us, all the people on the street had never seen such a sight and the guys in the hardware shops giggled like little girls as they zoomed away.  Also as theyzoomed off into the mêlée of Chinese traffic amongst buses, taxis and pedestrians, Keith thought “I wonder if an ER visit in Ping Xiang would be out of network on my insurance?”  Thirty minutes later they returned.  Bolts in hand…after stops at 3 shops.

We worked to adapt the chair for Taylor based on measurements that were one year old.  So we made it a little bigger—we worked all afternoon very creatively to grow the chair a few inches in width.

We finally met Taylor yesterday.  She was not much bigger, she was actually a little smaller.  So…. We undid all our hard work.  We didn’t end up even needing the 4 extra bolts.  But, we did it!!!  We made it work.  It wasn’t perfect but Taylor was thrilled and now she has a place she can sit at a table, be at eye level and participate with the other kids her age.  Man was it worth it. 

And, the chair just kept on giving.  The chest harness that Taylor didn’t need becauseshe can sit up very well on her own, was attached to a broken stroller chair today at Yichun for a little boy that needs support to sit up.  It was again a team effort of creativity, and we made it work and he looked great sitting up tall.  

So, the moral of the story—it is easy to bring a wheelchair internationally.  What is not easy—finding a missing bolt…or any bolt for that matter.  But what makes it work is the creativity of the team.  And how much little things, like a wheelchair, can really improve the quality of life for kids like Taylor.  And that is what Superkids is all about.  

And you know what?  We still have some parts in our bags…maybe there is a child in Fuzhou we can help…