Celebrating Unsung Heroes
by Stephen Mills
MONTPELIER — If you’re a medical patient, have a disability, are elderly, poor or eco-conscious and want free medical equipment that is recycled, then The Med Shed at Wayward Wheels is the place for you.
For the past 20 years, Sue and Raymond Toolan have offered the free loan of a multitude of medical equipment to anyone who needs it. Their mission of mercy is driven by personal experience, by empathy and sympathy for the disadvantaged and less-fortunate, and by an energetic embrace of environmentalism.
Since 1973, Wayward Wheels, Inc. has worked to improve the lives of people with disabilities locally, nationally and abroad by scavenging, cannibalizing, rebuilding and recycling medical equipment to keep people mobile, safe and comfortable. The organization works with state and federal agencies to voice and support their needs and with local nonprofits that help individuals remain self-sufficient, independent and in their own homes.
“My wife is someone who works with people with disabilities because she has a disability herself,” said Raymond.
“I have retinitus pigmentosis,” said Sue. “Most of the retina in my eyes is simply missing. I am also hearing impaired.”
Her disability has led to a life devoted to helping and caring for others with disabilities, and a home-grown business supporting their physical needs.
“For 20 years, I worked as a peer advocate counselor with Vermont Center of Independent Living in Montpelier,” said Sue. “One of the criteria for being an advocate was having a disability yourself. A peer advocate works with people that have disabilities to assist them in finding ways and strategies to remain independent and living in their own homes.”
During her time at Vermont Center of Independent Living, Sue met Marcella Ryan of Winooski who started a nonprofit business called Wayward Wheels, Inc. She recovers perfectly usable, discarded medical equipment to loan out.
“We were helping Marcie and storing equipment, and then we moved to the scale we have now (at our home),” said Raymond.
The Toolans live in a two-story yellow clapboard house on a steep hill on Sunnyside Terrace near the State House. The Med Shed is situated directly behind the home, and is crammed with an assortment of medical equipment and spare parts.
“After our kids were grown and gone, we decided to build a branch office in support of Marcella who is technically the president of the organization,” said Raymond. “Sue is the vice-president, and I’m the treasurer and secretary. Marcelle has multiple disabilities but she keeps going. She runs the operation from Winooski, and we run it from here in Montpelier.”
“We need more people like Marcie,” Sue added simply, when asked for a testimonial of her colleague’s life work.
Referrals to Wayward Wheels in central Vermont still come through Vermont Center for Independent Living, Central Vermont Home Health and Hospice and University of Vermont Health Network —Central Vermont Medical Center.
“We call our storage unit The Med Shed, which is next to our wood shed,” said Raymond. “Everything we have here has been donated. We simply recycle it. We make sure it’s serviceable and safe. When people need it, they come and get it. When they’re done with it, we ask them to bring it back, and we clean it up and put it away.”
Anyone who has ever had to pay full price for medical equipment will appreciate getting a free loan of it.
Wayward Wheels has motorized hospital beds that would cost $800 new, simple walking canes that can cost $15 to $30, walkers costing $20 to $50 and crutches costing $40 to $50.
Standard wheelchairs can cost as much as $500. “All told, we have 130 wheelchairs, but how many do you see here?” Raymond asked. Only a few were visible. The rest were on loan, indicating how much demand there is for their equipment.
“We have a powered wheelchair that cost $26,000 new — about the price of a nice car,” Raymond continued. “This chair does everything but cook a pizza. We also have a powered pediatric chair for a child that cost more than $1000. They come in all shapes and sizes, and some are tremendously expensive. When you specialize a chair, the price can go up a lot.”
Other equipment includes shower chairs, transfer seating benches and commodes.
“People can use the transfer seating bench to slide over to the shower chair,” said Raymond. The commodes can save a difficult trip to the bathroom, he added.
The couple also has a range of spare parts from equipment that is damaged or unsafe that has been salvaged to make repairs when possible.
They have boxes of new glucose meters for diabetics that have passed their sell-by date and can no longer be sold, but are still perfectly good.
“All told, we have over 4,000 things in our collection,” said Raymond. “Then there are things that come in and I have no idea what they’re used for.” He will do research to try and learn their use.
Distribution is not limited to the local area either. Raymond said they have sent equipment abroad and within the United States to support humanitarian efforts.
“Five lightweight ‘sports chairs’ went to Ukraine,” said Raymond. “At least one high-end manual wheelchair went to Moscow with a visiting physician who had her 10-year-old son push her through customs in it to avoid import issues. A truckload of items went to the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota with the Vermont Air Guard. Another truckload went to the Hurricane Katrina effort in New Orleans with a convoy. It’s all about getting equipment to the people who need it.”
Philanthropy and philosophy are integral to the business, and strong motivations for the couple.
“It’s a matter of being a part of the larger community,” said Raymond. “Also, everyone talks about recycling, thinking globally and acting on it. Sue and I do it.”
“It is simply a part of being a part of a community,” Sue added. “There are so many resources available, but so much is wasted. We simply provide a conduit where people may donate items they no longer need so they can be used by others who do. We are a stand-alone Vermont nonprofit and we are not affiliated with any other organization; it is just us.”
There is no means or income test for the clients. Everyone is welcome to ask for loans of equipment for as long as they need it. “We had someone drive up in a $75,000 Jaguar to pick up a $30 walker,” said Raymond. “We don’t judge anyone in terms of income. If they need it, we provide it. We also have people on fixed incomes that are economically challenged. If they come and say they need something, they get it.”
Raymond is aged 66 and Sue is 68, and they have three children and four grandchildren. They’ve been married 45 years after meeting while Raymond was at New York State University College of Forestry in Syracuse, and Sue was at the nearby Syracuse University’s School of Russian Studies. Students at Raymond’s university would take liberal studies at the other university, and students at Sue’s university would take science courses at Raymond’s college and they met at a school function.
Raymond officially retired this year after 37 years as a forest biology scientist working for the State of Vermont. For the past 17 years, he worked for the state as a county forester in Lamoille County for the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation under the Agency of Natural Resources, helping private non-industrial landowners manage their forested land.
Asked to describe a range of responses from recipients of loaned equipment, Sue replied: “Usually people simply say ‘thank you.’”
Terry Williams, of Bradford, and her brother, Dondi Wallbridge, of Barre, came by during the interview to pick up an electric powered hospital bed, and were more effusive about their loan.
This will definitely help,” said Williams. “My dad is terminally ill with cancer at his home in an apartment in Barre, so we’re trying to make him as comfortable as possible. I’ve been staying with him in Barre so he’s not alone.
“We heard about this place from Central Vermont Home Health and Hospice. We’ve been looking for months and months to find him a bed.”
Williams said the height-adjustment and side rails on the bed would make it easier and safer for him to get in and out of bed. “It’s been scary watching him get in and out of his own bed. Instead, he’s been sleeping hunched over in his electric wheelchair.
“This bed is a godsend. These are really great people doing good for people who need things,” she added.
Wayward Wheels is always looking for donations of unused medical equipment and supplies.
For more information, contact Sue and Raymond Toolan at Wayward Wheels Inc., 1 Sunnyside Terrace, Montpelier, VT 05602-2153, tel. 229-0093 or e-mail: email@example.com