Student's need gets wheels turning

Student's need gets wheels turning

By Kaitlin Gurney, INQUIRER SUBURBAN STAFF

GLASSBORO - Rowan University student Liza McCollum zips through school corridors in her wheelchair faster than any other student can run.

It's sitting still that is the problem.

McCollum was born with spina bifida, a disease that left her paralyzed from the waist down. The spirited 22-year-old says she has not let the condition deter her from her goals - such as becoming an elementary school teacher and having to "dash after 6-year-olds and wipe runny noses."

But three years ago, long hours studying in her wheelchair gave her pressure sores that led to a serious infection. McCollum had to take 21/2 years off from school, underwent 20 surgeries, and had her right leg amputated to donate bone and tissue to her backside.

Now McCollum, infection-free for almost a year, is back at Rowan, still a freshman. The native of Bryn Athyn, Montgomery County, has a carefully crafted academic schedule that allows her to spend time in her dorm room, where she relieves pressure by resting on her back.

Enter Team Wheels.

McCollum's academic adviser, Carol Eigenbrot, secretly contacted the engineering department to find out if some altruistic students could craft a wheelchair to help McCollum handle longer class hours.

Three juniors in the electrical-engineering track - Michael Healy of Denville, Morris County; Christopher Panchesine of Millville, Cumberland County; and Patrick Violante of Park Ridge, Bergen County - volunteered, naming their project Team Wheels.

"We liked this project because it's not for a big company, where you never see the benefits of how your work has changed the world," Panchesine said. "And Liza inspires me. She has every right to complain about her situation, and she doesn't."

McCollum said what she needs is a manual wheelchair that can recline to different positions, easing the weight on her tailbone.

"I have this balancing act between staying out of my wheelchair and going to class and having a life," she said. "It's been my understanding that there wasn't a wheelchair that could suit my lifestyle."

There are electric wheelchairs that recline, but the manual sort that McCollum uses - which allows her to keep her arm muscles strong and resistant to her disease - has a rigid back.

Her arms are so strong, in fact, that Panchesine said he doubted he would win if he arm-wrestled her. Professors who encounter McCollum bolting through the halls joke that they will give her a speeding ticket.

"I really cherish my independence, and I'm trying to do everything I can to keep it as long as possible," McCollum said.

The three aspiring engineers are well on their way to building a prototype of a reclining wheelchair that will help McCollum and possibly others like her.

"In a perfect situation, we'll get a patent and we'll all be millionaires," Violante said.

But the group still has a lot of work to do.

The students have ordered a replica of McCollum's current wheelchair with $1,500 from the Assistive Technology for the Disabled Project, a program at Rowan that provides special-needs grants. In more than 60 man-hours since September, they have crafted a way to add a headrest and insert pistons in the handles to make the chair adjustable.

Professor John Schmalzel, chairman of Rowan's electrical- and computer-engineering department, supervises the trio and will assign them a grade in their engineering workshop based on their success.

But McCollum promises that the engineering students, now friends of hers, will receive an A no matter how long it takes for her new throne to be safe to use.

"I don't care who I have to go to," she said, "because this project has already been successful in my book. Here I had complete strangers who are moving mountains for me, and it's the most amazing thing that's ever happened to me."

Additional Details:

Date Published: Thursday, November 22, 2001 (All day)
Source URL: The Philadelphia Inquirer