Keeping the Wheels Spinning

Chris Savoie with President Coleman

Chris Savoie

Chris Savoie has been fitting kids into wheelchairs for U-M's Wheelchair Seating Services since 1999, and he says he sees the work differently than most.

"My friends say, 'Dude, I couldn't go to work with you. I would just go out, sit in the van and cry.'" Says Chris, "It's not that I detach myself from the situation or the people I'm involved with. It's that I think, 'I am there. I can help.'"

Chris started his career as a rehab engineer after leaving college early because the loans got to be too much. He moved to Lansing, and took a job at Cole Rehab. "They were looking for a delivery boy," he recalls.

Mrs. Cole, the company owner, liked Chris a lot. She liked his open spirit and passion for life. In 1993, she hired him, and Chris soon became almost a part of the Cole family, sharing an apartment with their son. The Coles mentored him, and Chris learned all about the business of orthotics and prosthetics. Six years later, he accepted a job at U-M's Wheelchair Seating Service.

His U-M job, transitioning and fitting people into wheelchairs, took him all over Michigan, and eventually, the world.

Delivering Wheels Where They're Needed

On one mission, through a program called Wheels for Humanity, Chris and a colleague took 167 wheelchairs to Vietnam, where he fitted those in need, and taught local therapists how to repair and maintain them. He did this on vacation time, on his own dime.

If his patient lives on a farm, he says, he will try to fit him/her for an all-terrain chair. A customer who lives a city life might be fitted with one that glides more easily in and out of vehicles and over pavement and floors.

Ever since his first year with Wheelchair Seating Services, Chris has volunteered at U-M's camp for ventilator-dependent children, Trail's Edge Camp. "The first year I went [there] to take and repair wheelchairs. After that, they had me hook, line and sinker. I've gone up and volunteered ever since," he says.

Neubacher Recognition

U-M recognized his tireless efforts in 2003, when Chris received the James T. Neubacher Award for his significant contributions to the needs of the disabled. It was a perfect tribute to a man who quietly does more for the children and families of those who have endured near-death injury or illness than any of us can perhaps imagine. He says, "I just love what I do. I love to work with the kids, help out the kids, and try and get them whatever they want and need."

Chris' patients are mostly children, he says, but after 14 years at U-M, some of them are now adults. (People grow, and need new wheelchairs and fittings.) Still, the first time Chris sees a patient is usually in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, where he meets and greets them with a chair.

"We're getting them up out of bed for the first time since they've been injured," he says. He also says, poignantly, he could tell what season it is in Michigan just by the kids' injuries: football injuries in fall, snowmobile accidents in winter, diving accidents in summer. Sadly, automobile accidents happen all throughout the year. He also tends to children who were born with cerebral palsy, when it is time for them to transition to a chair.

Chris will be 40 in January, has two young kids, and commutes to Ann Arbor from Lansing. His current title is rehab engineer I. He says, "that's as close as it gets" to finding a title for the role he plays in people's lives.

It's not the right job for everybody, he says, but it's right for him. Chris also hopes to expand his role into teaching, recruiting and mentoring.

"It's not something young people think of or consider as a career," Chris says. As an industry, he says, "we've been trying to figure that out."

- Jan Schlain