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On rebound, he sets wheels in motion

'David is a true hero,' said Joseph Canose, vice president for quality of life at the Reeve Foundation. 'Without someone like him . . . these people would be completely stuck.' "David is a true hero," said Joseph Canose, vice president for quality of life at the Reeve Foundation. "Without someone like him . . . these people would be completely stuck." (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Julia Rappaport
Globe Correspondent / January 29, 2009
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When David Heim of Marlborough closed up shop six months ago, it was all about the numbers: the 600 wheelchairs he had repaired in the span of a decade; the 450 low-income and uninsured clients who had received those recycled and refurbished chairs for an affordable cost; and the zero dollars he had left to continue his not-for-profit business.

"We closed out of frustration," Heim explained last week. Without the space or money to keep up with demand, Heim took dozens of wheelchairs to the dump, shut off his phone, and took a vacation.

But he could not forget the business or the many clients he had left behind. "I went to Florida for vacation, but I was bored. I never wanted to quit doing it because it is so important," Heim said.

Now, equipped with a new, if improvised, workshop and renewed vigor, Heim is reopening his business this week. He is still looking for a bit of money for a new van and help with the rent on an official space that would suit his needs.

Heim first started Wheelchair Recycler Inc. after a 1995 car crash that left him paralyzed from the neck down at the age of 34.

Doctors told Heim he would never walk again, would never breathe without a tube. Even his vocal cords were paralyzed, leaving him unable to speak or swallow. But bucking the odds, Heim regained movement, first in a thumb, then in one arm. He moved back home with his parents, and in time found a job. He drove 6 miles along Route 20 in his mechanical wheelchair to get there: "I just started fighting for it. I was very stubborn, is what helped."

In the late 1990s, seeing first-hand the need for affordable wheelchairs, Heim started fixing castoffs in a small workshop in his parents' basement. Within a few years, Heim had repaired about 100 chairs. "It was a hobby at first, but then it took off," he said.

As word of his Wheelchair Recycler operation spread, local hospitals, veterans' affairs offices and residents called Heim to donate used or broken wheelchairs that he could refurbish.

Heim repairs them with the help of his 20-year-old son, Joe, and a friend, Glenn Scott, both of Marlborough, and resells the chairs at a discount. Usually, his clients do not have health insurance either because they cannot afford it, or because they live in the country illegally and do not qualify for it. When people cannot afford a chair, he doesn't charge.

He never charges for children's chairs, but says sometimes parents insist on paying.

Heim, 47, makes ends meet by collecting disability insurance and scraping together different mechanic jobs. He repairs anything from scooters to hospital beds, he said. He is still in a wheelchair but can breathe on his own and has the use of his hands, though not full rotation of his arms.

The need for the program remains high, said Heim. The average motorized wheelchair costs roughly $20,000, he said. Often, insurance companies will charge $1,400 to repair something as simple as a joystick, or a battery. It is not unusual for patients to wait a month or more for repairs, he said.

"There are horror stories. I've heard lots of horror stories," he said. "I can't just sit there and not do anything when I see people literally sitting in a manual chair and they can't move, because they don't have insurance or are an illegal alien."

Eventually, the demand caught up to Heim. The workshop in his parents' basement was so full of broken wheelchairs and parts waiting to be reused that he was running out of space. "At one point, I had 200 chairs in the basement," he said. So last year, he moved his operation to an unheated storage space in Marlborough.

Again the space was too small and the demand too great, he said, noting, "I was getting 30 to 40 calls a week."

Operating on a shoestring budget, Heim became a victim of his own success. Heim has never applied for any grant funding and has received only one donation - $10,000 from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation to buy a handicapped-accessible van. The foundation also gave Heim's effort a publicity boost in 2006 when it donated the late actor's wheelchair for him to fix and resell.

This winter, after a few months away from the business, Heim decided he had to go back to work. "As the economy sinks, my job gets more and more important because without this, people will just do without," he explained. Heim said he wrote to Senator Edward M. Kennedy this week asking for financial help, and now he is crossing his fingers.

Heim said the rent for a space that could accommodate his business is $2,000 a month. He hopes Kennedy's office will help him raise the $24,000 a year he would need to cover the rent, or assist him in finding a permanent space for his workshop. He also hopes to hire a grant writer and apply to the Reeve Foundation for a new van.

A member of the Massachusetts Democrat's staff said this week that the senator had not yet received the correspondence from Heim and could not comment on what kind of help might be available.

But Joseph Canose, vice president for quality of life at the Reeve Foundation, encouraged Heim to apply for a second grant. Heim received a quality of life grant from the foundation in 2007, which he used to buy a handicap accessible van for the business. Created by the Reeves after the "Superman" actor was paralyzed in a horseback riding accident, the foundation awards grants of up to $25,000 to nonprofits that provide services to individuals with spinal cord injuries.

"David is a true hero," he said. "Without someone like him who is piecing together parts and creating mobility, these people would be completely stuck."

Maria Gomes is among the many rooting for Heim to find the help he needs.

"I hope David continues to do this," the Framingham resident said last week. A few years ago, Gomes paid Heim $2,000 to repair two wheelchairs for her nephew and niece, both of whom have cerebral palsy. This would have been an average order, except that Gomes had Heim ship the chairs to Brazil, her native country. "Wheelchairs are very expensive here, and in Brazil it is more," the housecleaner and mother of two explained.

After the repaired wheelchairs arrived in Brazil, members of her mother's church contacted Gomes. They needed more chairs.

"We help the people," Gomes said simply. "I don't know how I would start to find a chair like this if David was not here. It is very expensive."

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