Shelly Torres West will miss a lot about seating and mobility, but not the paperwork
For the past 30 years, Shelly Torres West has served on the front lines of the seating and mobility industry, mostly as a rehab technology supplier (RTS) and technician. She has experienced first-hand the changes made within the industry, the impact the seating and mobility industry has on its clients, and exactly how hard work, compassion, and simply caring can go a long way at making a life better.
In the beginning…
In December, Shelly will retire from a 30-year long career. She accidentally entered the seating and mobility industry in 1982 while serving as a building maintenance person for a facility serving mentally challenged adults.
“People kept coming to me with wheelchair problems and I’d say, ‘I can’t get parts!’ I kept taking them apart and trying to put them back together, but I couldn’t get the parts I needed,” shared Shelly.
A tip to call her now long-time friend and colleague, Sara Moore, who at the time worked at Denton State School, is what would begin Shelly’s career in the seating and mobility industry.
“People said she [Sara Moore] worked with wheelchairs and so I called her and she started helping me fix the wheelchairs,” Shelly said.
Shortly afterward, Shelly and Sara started a business together, opening a company they named “Adaptive Systems Unlimited.” After nearly eight years, they ended the business and both went to work for the Dallas Rehab Institute.
“They hired both of us and then about two years afterward Dallas Rehab decided that they didn’t want to run a DME out of their hospital, so they shut it down. Lo and behold, here comes National Seating & Mobility (NSM) to town,” Shelly said.
Making an impact…
NSM is where Shelly currently works and where she will retire from in December. NSM hired Shelly as a technician, but soon moved her into the role of an RTS. She has served as an RTS for the past 17 years, traveling daily to clients’ (she refers to them as her “kids”) home or school to evaluate and fit them for appropriate seating and mobility equipment.
“Our dream is to be put out of a job, but it’ll never happen. Kids survive tragedies, they survive birth defects, and they survive all of these things because of modern medicine. As long as that’s happening we’ve got to do everything we can to make their lives better,” said Shelly.
Her career serves as proof that she works hard to do just that. Recalling her best memory on the job, Shelly remembers a young girl who had laid flat on her back all of her life.
“We’d delivered a power chair to a young lady. She was in the fifth grade and she’d always laid flat. When we put her in her power chair she was able to sit up a little bit and she yelled, ‘I can see your feet!’” Shelly said.
A few days after getting the young girl settled in her new power chair, Shelly and a coworker accompanied the girl and a few of her friends to a special event at a skating rink for a case study she was completing for an NSM Symposium.
“She was allowed to drive her chair on the skating rink floor. And so all of her friends hooked onto that chair and made this long line and she was pulling them all around the skating rink. It was great! She was independent and she’d never been independent before. That was one of the greatest moments of my life.”
Change, change, and more change…
With Shelly, there is no shortage of memories or moments in the seating and mobility industry. She remembers the industry from 30 years ago when technicians did everything, including assembling seating and mobility systems from start to finish.
“I mean we used to cut the wood, cut the foam, glue the foam on, and upholster it. We did everything from scratch, so when we actually started being able to order parts and seating systems, it was a really wonderful thing,” Shelly said.
Shelly also remembers when it was much easier to get funding for equipment, recalling Texas as once being one of the better states in the nation for funding and one in which it was easier to get parts for clients.
“One of the most difficult things [about the job of an RTS] is the frustration—trying to get something for a client that you know will impact their life and make it better. But when it comes to funding you’re running into a brick wall.”
One thing that has not changed, Shelly assures, is the paperwork. To put it simply, “There’s always too much paperwork,” she said.
“Also, there’s always a kid in need. There’s always a challenge ahead. That will always remain the same,” Shelly said.
Hard work, compassion and caring…
Despite changes and challenges, Shelly continues to put her best foot forward in her role as an RTS for NSM. She describes her most important responsibility as an RTS as “putting the client’s needs first.”
“When I’m working with a family and evaluating a child, when they’re getting their very first wheelchair, it’s really emotional sometimes. It’s hard for the family and I think that how we (RTSs) handle ourselves and the face that we present in the situation is critical. I look at it as an opportunity to show compassion, care and concern. And that changes me,” Shelly said.
Shelly’s hard work and faithful service is far from unnoticed. In May, NSM CEO Mike Ballard awarded Shelly NSM’s “Lifetime Achievement Award.”
“I love Mike Ballard. I just love him with all my heart. At first when he said my name, I got a little nervous. I said, ‘Oh crap, I’m in trouble.’ Then, I realized—Oh! He’s going to tell people I’m retiring. But I didn’t realize he was going to honor me with the Lifetime Achievement Award!”
Come December when retirement is in full swing, Shelly says she will miss her NSM family, therapists, reps, and personnel from the manufactures and vendors she has worked with. She will especially miss Sara Moore—yes, the same one who helped her fix wheelchairs back when she served as a maintenance person struggling to get wheelchair parts. NSM hired Sara Moore at the same time as Shelly and she is a part of the NSM family Shelly will leave in December.
“It’s going to be really different for me to not work with Sara. She helped deliver my son; she was there when my house burned down. She’s been there for everything. It’s going to be different,” explained an emotional Shelly. “It’s a good thing she lives nearby.”
Different it will be, and in a number of ways. Not only will Shelly not move forward with her partner-in-“care,” Sara Moore, but once retired she’ll spend her time driving kids to school as a part-time school bus driver during the mornings and afternoons, serving as an independent business owner in between, and entertaining as a Jazz singer by night.
“Since I made the decision to leave National Seating & Mobility, more and more music has been coming my way. So I’m very excited about that,” Shelly said. “My life is going to still be full, only I won’t have to go home and do paperwork!”
Kimberly Lilly is a corporate communications specialist with National Seating & Mobility. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.