Relief mission rejuvenates provider

Saturday, May 31, 2008

With national competitive bidding and other reimbursement cuts, it hasn’t been easy for providers like Jan Soderquist to keep their spirits up. It took a recent relief mission to a foreign country to remind Soderquist why she got into the wheelchair business.

Soderquist, president of Rehab Equipment Associates (REQ) in Manchester, N.H., was part of a team of providers, therapists and technicians who traveled to Lima, Peru, for two weeks in March and outfitted about 100 children and adults with wheelchairs.

“There were no funding issues, so the minute we were there, it was back to doing what we do best: meeting a client’s needs,” she said. “We worked with one ALS patient who just brought tears to my eyes. She couldn’t speak, but the smile of appreciation on her face said it all.”

Soderquist made the trip to Peru as part of a nonprofit started by a therapist whose daughter had cerebral palsy and died. The nonprofit organizes annual trips to Peru and Jordan.

Even without “funding issues,” the trip wasn’t without its challenges, Soderquist said. Case in point: One child with MS needed footrests but Soderquist didn’t have the right hardware to attach them to her wheelchair. She worked with another volunteer to MacGyver a way to keep them from “swaying in the breeze.”

“I would say that we had a 50-50 shot that the chair marked for a certain child was the right fit,” Soderquist said. “When it wasn’t, you had to start from scratch. Sometimes you swapped Johnny’s chair for someone else’s chair. You’d start the day saying, ‘This is insanity,’ but you’d end the day meeting everyone’s needs, or at least the best you could. Every day, it was a miracle.”

Some other challenges: culture shock (“I work in state with 1 million people, and I was in a city with 11 million people,” Soderquist said) and 12- to 14-hour workdays.

Despite the challenges, Soderquist is considering another trip next year, this time to Jordan.

“It’s one of those things that you need to get through before you can appreciate it,” she said. “Even when I was there, though, I could appreciate the interaction between volunteers. You might get annoyed with someone one day, but they’d be the person who’d get you out a real jam the next day.”