iBOT puts patients on high

A new wheelchair gives users a lift — so they don’t have to look up to everyone anymore. It can tackle stairs too.

Published May 30, 2006

TAMPA — David Grote hasn’t looked a standing man in the eye since April 18, 1994.


He swerved to avoid a deer on the way home from work that night, others told him. His Mustang convertible bucked him from his seat, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. He landed in a monthlong coma. His memory, like his mobility, never fully returned.

But technology now offers Grote a chance to rise up and attempt his goal of becoming a developer and feeling at ease in negotiations with landowners and contractors.

“If I want to be in any kind of business, I need to look people in the eye,” he said.

He can reach his second-floor Fort Myers condominium for the first time in 12 years, once again experiencing life above 4 feet. That was his limit after the crash. Now he can open cupboards. He is one of fewer than 1,000 people outfitted with a wheelchair that can raise itself by balancing on its hind wheels, like a rearing stallion, and maneuver stairs like a Slinky.

Tuesday, Grote, 50, was given his own iBOT Mobility System, a power wheelchair that’s a cross between a Segway Human Transporter and a small tank. The exchange took place at the University of South Florida Physical Therapy Center, one of 19 clinics across the nation that can assess whether paralyzed patients make good fits for the device and can train them to use one.

People who weigh less than 75 pounds or more than 250 pounds can’t use the iBOT. Nor can those unable to dial a push-button phone or use a joystick. People whose legs can’t be manipulated into footrests may also face problems, according to the device’s Web site.

Made by Johnson & Johnson’s Independence Technology subsidiary, the iBOT costs between $24,000 and $30,000. Standard electronic wheelchairs generally cost less than half that.

The iBOT looks like an electronic wheelchair until it climbs, using a combination of sensors and computers that work with gyroscopes. Motion sensors help maintain balance. Each iBOT weighs 289 pounds and can go up to 12 miles on fully charged batteries, moving as fast as nearly 6.8 mph.

Independence Technology screens would-be users before referring them to USF or similar clinics.
The company is lobbying insurance companies, as well as Medicare and Medicaid, to reimburse patients.

The Florida Division of Vocational Rehabilitation paid for Grote’s $23,900 chair. Self-employed, he had no health insurance to cover his accident. He owned his own office furniture business and ran five times a week, thinking he was in good health. Now he lives on disability benefits.

For more than a decade, he has relied on the same electronic chair. Its back cushion is torn. Duct tape hangs from an arm rest. The seat leaks air, wearing on his hips and back. And, of course, his mobility is limited.

When his van broke down once, he rode his wheelchair a quarter-mile on a sidewalk until the curb ended. He turned around, rode back, jumped onto the adjacent road and finally reached a pay phone.

He got stuck in the woods another time, his chair mired in the mud on a nature trail. He used his cell phone to call for help.

“It’s hard to describe,” said Grote, a father of two grown sons. “A person in a wheelchair feels they have two strikes against them. Now I only have one strike against me.”

He still can’t stand. But the iBOT can lift him as high as he’s been since the accident.

“This is just amazing, just amazing,” Grote’s friend, Peggy Daas, said Tuesday, red-eyed from watching him run through demonstrations and tests at the USF clinic.

Grote lifted himself to a kitchen cupboard, where he opened it to find packets of Sweet ’N Low and a package of flour peeking out. He pirouetted on two wheels and practiced turns.

He nearly didn’t pass his test, after trouble with some practice stairs. Frustration built, but eventually a physical therapist let him take the iBOT home provided he continue training and return for a retest.

He thought about the first thing he would do — go to the beach for a look at the bay unspoiled by wheels stuck in sand.

“I’ve looked so forward to his day,” he said. “I can’t describe it.”

Times staff photographer Melissa Lyttle contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.