Saturday, August 1, 2009

Permobil, We Have a Problem...

I've been using a power wheelchair full time since a week before I started college in late August of 1997. During all stages of my post-injury rehab, during my senior year of high school, and through that following summer I used a manual chair. When I had to transition to my power chair I had a tough time initially because I thought it made me look much more disabled, like I was too lazy to push myself, along with all the functional adjustments I needed to make. But it was a necessary evil because, as my former Craig Hospital physical therapist (who was an ex-Navy SEAL) put it, if I didn't have a power chair to get me in and out of my van and around the college campus I'd be "kicking my own ass."

The power chair I chose to get was the
Quickie P200. I remember we had to sort of back door get it on the sly through my dad's work insurance because our primary medical insurance taxed it's limit on "durable medical goods" when they covered my Quickie manual chair. I think my manual chair was between $4-5k and my power chair closer to $10k. Absolutely ridiculous considering at the time you could practically buy two brand new small sedans for the same price. And it’s even worse now days.

But at the time the Quickie P200 was hands down the Cadillac CTS of power wheelchairs: compact, functional, highly maneuverable, great in tight spots, unassuming, and speedy (e.g. top speed of 7 mph, could do a full speed wheelie for up to 100 yards right out of the box). While I was at Craig Hospital in Denver I got a chance to test drive it for a few days so I gained a pretty decent level of comfort with it. Even though I wear my UW Badgers fandom on my sleeve, and thus red is my favorite color, I decided to go with black because I thought the neutral color would “hide” the chair beneath me rather than flaunt it. It has been a greatly reliable chair for going on twelve years now. Very few problems have arisen, mostly involving the replacement of worn out parts (e.g. armrests, tires, batteries).

About a year and a half ago it was determined that I was in a position for my insurance to cover a new chair. My Quickie has always been in such good shape that when I told one of my health liaisons that it was over ten years old she said I could definitely get a new one paid for. I didn’t think I needed one but also thought that it would be nice to have a backup. Then I went through this arduous year and a half long process of testing new chairs every few months, for about a week at a time as demo models were available. I had a hard time finding the right fit because despite new technologies none of them could hold a candle to my Quickie in all the areas I needed.

In the end I chose the
Permobil C350. It was the best of the batch of 6 or so chairs I tried, which wasn’t saying much. Plus this chair had some bells and whistles I wasn’t accustomed to: tilt, recline, leg elevation—the three combined and I could lie out flat if I wanted. So I took the plunge.

But almost immediately I had buyer’s remorse because once I started using it fairly regularly I realized it was a lot bigger than I remembered demo-ing. I sat 2 inches higher, it was a few inches wider, it was over half a foot longer, etc. than my Quickie. No person in a wheelchair wants to get taller, wider, and longer in their ride because generally we are already sitting almost a head length taller than everyone else and have enough issues moving around out in public settings. Moreover, lots of functional issues started popping up: because it was so much bigger I had to back into my van, it barely fit in the van, had to back into my bedroom to go to bed instead of going in frontwards and doing a spin, using the toilet was hard, I kept banging into stuff, the wide wheelbase made turning in tight spots super slow or non-existent, etc. But I kept putting up with it because I thought I would adapt to it with more practice. All the while I was still using my Quickie as my primary chair, which defeated the purpose of getting a new one to replace it.

Then I started having weird computer/mechanical issues. For example, I would go to recline/tilt and the buttons would just blink and do nothing. Or it would lock me into “turtle” mode (not kidding, when you recline, etc. beyond “unsafe” operating degrees the green lights go yellow and a little turtle dude pops up on the display). Or a few times I was on the way to the kitchen and it would slow to turtle mode, then stop, then the joystick would go to sleep (again, a picture of a joystick with Z’s displayed). The only solution was to turn it off then on again, a la rebooting a pc. But I was doing it up to 10 times a day, and in potentially precarious locations (e.g. by the toilet). It was frustrating and stressful and I’ve had it repaired a few times now. I kept thinking it was a matter of time before I got stuck.

All that said, cut to the other night. I was at my desk turning off my computer and set to back up and get ready for bed. But the chair didn’t move. I looked at the display and it read “system error” and blinked a “!” Awesome. So I turned it off and on again, nothing. Did it a few more times, nothing. Great. Completely stuck and stranded at my desk at 12:30 am. My head quickly assessed that I needed to call my PCA (i.e. personal care assistant, in other words the lady who helps me out in the morning) but my heart didn’t want to. I’ve had to do it a few times in the last five years and hated it every time. Hate putting someone out. Hate being a burden. Hate that the phone is by her husband so he wakes up too. So I tried desperately to do what I could to get it to work again on my own—on and off about 40 times, putting it in and out of gear, etc.—knowing fully well the whole time that my efforts were futile.

So I made the call at about 1:15 am. There was no one else I could have called instead. She and her husband stopped out which was obviously very nice, despite the dire necessity. We switched my chairs out within a few minutes, they left, and I didn’t get to bed until after 2:30.

I had to call her a little over 2 years ago for a similar issue. When I started my last semester of law school my Quickie motor, demonstrating 11 years of use and abuse, started sounding like a small motorcycle engine with a muffler blown out. It was loud, obnoxious, and mortifying. Especially as I made my way around my law school building. I tried to be as quiet as I could but it was impossible. I got all kinds of looks. I even put serious thought to skipping class here and there to save further embarrassment. I told that to 2 great law school friends over post class drinks one night and my friend Randi said “Don’t you dare do that, screw what everyone else thinks!” Once we left the bar and got outside where they could hear my little engine that couldn’t in all it’s unglory they doubled over laughing. It put things into perspective, a better light, and as I left for home I had a changed attitude. I couldn’t help it, what could I do?

But as soon as I got out of my van back in my garage it started grinding harder. By the time I got into my apartment I had trouble steering. And when I did a turn in my living room to head to the bedroom it locked up and quit moving. Had to make the late, 1 am call that night too.

And thank God I was near my phones both times or I would have been really screwed. Bigger picture, it’s in those moments where it slaps me in the face as to how immobile, vulnerable, and reliant on other people, things, technology, etc. that I truly am. In my mind I just want to temporarily stand up and push the chair myself, and sometimes I revert to my manual chair mindset and want to row my arms on the invisible push wheels. Moments like that are real hard to deal with. But thankfully the extremes like those detailed above have rarely come along over the years.

But at the least, Permobil, we have a problem. Even when it’s fixed I think my confidence level with it’s electronic functionality is shot. The whole ‘fool me once shame on you, twice…’ thing. I’ve already set the wheels in motion with the powers that be that it’s not working out with that chair, but after the other night we’re heading for much less of an amicable split. And thus the Quickie still stands alone…


  1. Hi Shawn - welcome to the blogger world, it's fun! I have a blog about our little boy, Finley; it's a great way for family and friends to stay in touch with what we're up to.

    I've enjoyed reading your story and thoughts, you are an excellent and inspiring writer. I look forward to following your journey.

    Take care,

  2. Heather,
    I appreciate that, thanks for your kind words.

  3. Dude that sucks, and you totally need to get rid of that piece of crap. Lahner

  4. Does your permobil seat wobble - a lot? and does the back rest make clicking noises?

  5. No clicking noises in the back rest. I wouldn't say it wobbles, but there is a lot of play back and forth. So yes I guess you could say it wobbles. It is especially wobbly while I drive, which is the biggest reason why I don't like my C350: I don't feel secure behind the wheel. I wanted my frame tightened up to reduce the wobbling, but I was told by my wheelchair repair guy that a single post connects the base of the chair to the top and because of that Permobils are all going to have some play/shakiness/wobble in the frame. It sucks. I can't wait to get a new chair. I still use my Quickie P200 from 1997 quite a bit because it is more stable.

  6. Permobile C350 blinking control lights, turtle mode, tires that get flat spots for no reason, lack of reliability, air cushions failing once a year, absolute ridiculously horrid service, all hallmarks of PerMobile (Permo-Horrible )wheel chairs.
    When I get a new one, I will dig a hole in the yard and bury this $28,000 nightmare so no one else has to live through this.

  7. I am having the same horrible problems with my C350. Been in a chair for 21 years. My previous 3 powerchairs were Invacare. The motors on all of those lasted 6-7 years of hard abuse and use. I got new front casters a week ago and they ARE NOT ROUND! I have had this chair since December 2013 and have gone through 4 sets of motors. I will never buy another Permobil.