Network puts evacuees back into custom chairs

Monday, October 31, 2005

LARGO, Fla. - When Bruce Bayes thought about the short-term needs of evacuees who left their wheelchairs behind in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, he wasn't too worried.
Bayes, president of Custom Mobility, knew there were providers like Ron Kieschnick in Texas and other states where Gulf Coast residents where showing up in droves who would help.
"I remember Ron put a call out for help, asking for a couple of hundred standard wheelchairs," Bayes said. "People would come in by buses, and they couldn't physically walk. They needed wheelchairs just to get from the buses to the shelter."
What Bayes was more worried about were the long-term needs of evacuees, especially those with custom mobility needs. That hit him hard in the days and weeks after the hurricanes, when a handful of those evacuees visited Custom Mobility, and he felt like his hands were tied with red tape.
"The need is immediate and the paperwork, especially for Florida Medicaid, is a nightmare," Bayes said. "I felt there was no way that the system could take care of these people."
While evacuees have been granted expedited processing, "all that means is they get in line with the rest of Floridians, and they wait over three months to get their wheelchairs," he said.
As a result, Bayes and organizations like the state's Center for Assisted Living Innovation helped to launch Lightship Networks ( The goal: raising cash to outfit evacuees with appropriate wheelchairs right away.
Less than a week in an inadequate chair can mean anything from discomfort to worsening conditions to death, said Mark Schmeler, director of the Center for Assistive Technology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
"If a patient has postural deformities that can't be accommodated with pressure relief, it will take less than a few days for them to develop pressure sores," he said.
Lightship Networks hopes to raise enough money to outfit some 1,000 evacuees with custom wheelchairs, which can cost $15,000 to $20,000, Bayes said.
While the first priority of the initiative is getting evacuees back into the right chairs, Bayes said, he hopes it also shines a light on how counterproductive - and even harmful - the government has made the process.