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Winter and wheelchairs: A tricky combination

Wheelchair Winter Mary Free BedKelly Merz remembers all too well her first solo attempt at getting to work in the snow while using a wheelchair.

When she opened the door of her apartment to venture toward the garage, a gust of wind picked up the stack of papers on her lap. So she wheeled over to the papers, maneuvered out of her chair and into the snow to pick them up, then transferred back into her chair and continued toward the garage.

Moments later, as she muscled herself into the driver’s seat, her empty manual wheelchair slid backwards and out of reach. She backed her car out, but couldn’t manage to retrieve the chair.

“I was hysterical. I absolutely lost it,” she recalls. “Thankfully, someone came by and loaded it for me.”

Snowy and cold winters make even short trips to the grocery store more challenging for most of us, but the level of difficulty increases exponentially when you use a wheelchair.

“It’s just a fact of life that as winter nears I have to think more about this and prepare myself,” says Merz, a Spinal Cord Injury Program Recreational Therapist at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids and a wheelchair user since 2000.

She advises wheelchair users to always carry a cell phone, in the winter use nubby tires, which may require an entirely different wheel, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Merz also has a FreeWheel attachment, a heavy-duty wheel that clamps on the front of her manual chair and lifts the small front wheels off the ground.

“It’s one more thing to attach, but it makes all the difference,” she says.

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