Lee Tempest glances down a sunny hallway at UPMC Mercy. He has a few obstacles in his way.
First, he needs to weave through a half-dozen orange plastic cones, pushing a shopping cart as he moves. He’ll grab a few things along the way — an empty cereal box and a tomato sauce can — and toss them on the cart.
Midway, he reaches for a vacuum, which he uses to sweep up scattered pieces of paper. At the end, there’s a plywood curb to maneuver.
He clocks in at a time of 5 minutes and 21 seconds. The crowd erupts in cheers.
The wheelchair skills clinic at the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute at UPMC Mercy is held the third Thursday of every month from 3 to 4:30 p.m. Call 412-822-3674 for more information.
Tempest, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, has been in a wheelchair for 25 years, and he helps lead a free manual wheelchair skills clinic at the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute at UPMC Mercy.
“Having that set of wheelchair skills allows you to just feel more confident in getting around the community,” Tempest said.
The UPMC Rehabilitation Institute hosts a free monthly clinic in the hospital’s spinal cord unit. It’s open to anyone who uses a manual wheelchair — hospital patients and the public alike are welcome to attend.
Clinic participants make their way through an obstacle course designed to promote agility, rooting each other on through each task. When the last person arrives at the end, the group breaks out into individualized skill sections.
Those who attend come with a variety of conditions, ranging from spinal cord injuries to cerebral palsy, and multiple sclerosis. The classes are goal-oriented — a team of physical therapists from UPMC Centers for Rehab Services is on hand to help participants hone their skills, from handling curbs and grocery shopping to navigating Pittsburgh’s potholed landscape.
Learn more about the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute and Centers for Rehab Services
Joseph Leckenby is attending his second clinic. At the last session, he learned how to tilt his chair backward to get himself onto a sidewalk.
“I’ve only been in a wheelchair for five years,” he said, just a few moments before beginning the course. “So this is still new to me. I want to learn how to use it properly.”
Each participant arrives at the clinic with their own skillset — and areas for improvement. Some are new to life in a wheelchair, while others have been at it for a few decades.
Lynn Worobey, a physical therapist and research professor at the University of Pittsburgh Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, helps one woman learn how to ease into a wheelie.
“It’s really nice because they can learn from each other,” Worobey said. “They can learn that the wheelie isn’t a party trick, that there are gravel and grass and hills and ruts, and you can fall out of your chair.”
Clinic participant Bryan McCormick demonstrates a wheelie—relax your shoulders and keep your hands at 12 o’clock. It’s all in your hands, he says.
“Sometimes you need to know how to get up or down an escalator,” said McCormick, who leads a spinal cord injury peer support group at UPMC Mercy with Tempest. “Sometimes there are no elevators and you need to know the safest procedure.”
He said the supportive atmosphere of the clinic helps promote both everyday wheelchair skills and a sense of community.
“It’s like anything else – if you turn it into something fun and challenging, it turns into a whole different experience,” McCormick said.