Shriners Hospitals for Children in Tampa makes custom wheelchairs

Liam Geary, 5, of Lutz gives the Tiger Moth Ninja hand signal, from the book series, for his mother, Valerie Geary, while getting a wheelchair adjustment on March 16 at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Tampa. Liam was born with spina bifida.
Liam Geary, 5, of Lutz gives the Tiger Moth Ninja hand signal, from the book series, for his mother, Valerie Geary, while getting a wheelchair adjustment on March 16 at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Tampa. Liam was born with spina bifida.
Published Mar. 23, 2015


Five days a week, the sick and disabled stop by Craig Kraft's workshop on the bottom floor of Shriners Hospitals for Children.

Toddlers with spindly legs. Children with contorted spines. Bodies weakened and wrenched by diseases like spina bifida, cerebral palsy, dwarfism and muscular dystrophy.

Anywhere from five to 20 show up every day. They travel from southern Georgia, Key West, Miami, Pensacola, New Port Richey, Clearwater and Tampa to marvel at the rows of brightly painted, customized wheelchairs in Kraft's workshop.

Often the last stop after months of rigorous operations and physical therapy, children unable to move on their own come to the workshop in the hope of becoming mobile.

Brittney Camp, 28, who lives just outside Pensacola, first came here about a year ago, after the chair approved by their insurer didn't fit her son Rayland's tiny body.

Afflicted by a rare, fatal form of dwarfism, the 2 1/2-year-old is about the size of a newborn, weighing 9 pounds. Camp said doctors told her that he wouldn't live to see his first birthday.

For nine months, she said, she fought with her insurer to get a wheelchair to fit him. But when it finally arrived, it wasn't right.

It was too big and his head fell forward because he was too weak to hold it upright. That could cause him to choke.

Unemployed and living with her parents, Camp was approved by Shriners for a tilt-back, specially cushioned chair that would hold Rayland's head up. She received it about eight months ago.

"It was adorable. They made it where it fits him perfectly,'' she said. "It keeps his back straight, and it can recline or sit straight up if we want it to."

Camp said she cried the first time she saw her son in the chair.

"Me and mom both did," she said. "For someone to take the time to make something especially for my child, or any child, was a kind of godsend because most people will say they can't make things that small. He's happy to be in it. He smiles and giggles. He can look around now and see the world."

• • •

When children first arrive at Shriners Hospital, they're met by therapists and orthopedic doctors who review their medical history, take X-rays and test their range of motion atop cushioned examination tables.

Then measurements are taken and then Kraft gets to work. Delivery usually occurs within 60 days. The chairs can run in value from $1,500 to $30,000.

The experience of picking up a chair can be an emotional one for parents.

"You see a lot of tears here, tears of joy. But they're not always happy tears," said Kraft, who has headed the department since April 1990. "There are also tears that come from seeing their child in a wheelchair and realizing that they'll always be in a wheelchair."

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In an age where hospitals face ever-increasing pressure to cut expenses, Shriners' seating department is a rarity. Most hospitals farm their wheelchair work to outside contractors. And Shriners doesn't charge for its custom work. The chairs are for families who can't afford to buy them and who have been turned down by insurers because of limits on specialized care and equipment.

The hospital refers those who can pay to a select group of manufacturers.

Kraft and his assistant, Richie Besett, spend their days in a 1,200-square-foot workshop outfitted with three band saws, a drill press, a hydraulic lift, a paint booth and scores of other machines.

The shop is well-equipped to tackle whatever need arises, and there are scores of them.

For children unable to keep their head upright, or to relieve pressure on the tailbone, it can fashion a chair that tilts back. It can add canopies to protect against the sun. Velcro strapping to prevent falls. Custom-molded seat cushions.

The shop is crowded with about a dozen demo models and loaners.

They sit wheel to wheel in a small room near the entrance: Manual and motorized. Bright red, purple and green. Some with metallic paint. Chairs precisely contoured to fit the most frail 2- or 3-year-old. Or equipped with gel cushions to prevent pressure sores.

If, after six months, the child has grown, Kraft can adapt the chair to make the fit just right again.

The department has two storerooms filled floor to ceiling with dozens of used wheelchairs, electric motors and other parts — donations from hospitals and Shriners' temples across Florida.

Retrofitting the chairs — blending new and used parts — allows Kraft to control costs. The department's $220,000 budget is driven entirely by donations. Kraft says he can build a $30,000 motorized chair for a third of that cost.

Plus, he can add snazzy custom paint.

The best moment, Kraft says, is when a child takes delivery.

For some parents, it can be like watching their son or daughter walk for the first time.

"We've had mothers videotaping on their cellphones. They're so excited to see their child, they'll take videos and send them to friends," he said.

"I love working with families. That's the best part, to see their excitement, knowing your work can bring them some happiness."