John Maltby is 63 years old. He’s a father and a grandfather. And he’s a father in law.
He is also suffering with ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. With books like Tuesdays With Morrie, by Mitch Albom; and the public struggles of brave souls like Sue Rodriguez, we know more about ALS today than we did a decade ago.
John lives in Burlington. Day by day his mind watches his body be able to do less and less. He spends his days in bed or in a wheelchair, incapable of any physical movement unless it’s by the hands of his wife or a homemaker who comes in to give a hand. It’s a life with diminishing physical dignity.
I’m introducing you to John this week because of his relationship with his son in law, and the incredible story that’s occurred in a garage-turned-shop in Oro Township.
George Shelswell is John’s son in law. George tinkers. George has a special mind that can put together ideas, and bits and pieces to envision something big. George can make anything work again. It’s his gift, and one that he shyly plies in a series of hobby activities. His day job utilizes few of these skills.
In George’s garage is a device that will change John Maltby’s life. George has built a self standing, self-supporting lift and movement system that will allow John to press a single button to activate a pulley system that will pick him up, move him on a track from his bedside along a hallway through a bathroom door and swing him either to his bath-tub or the toilet. Being able to use a bathroom may seem of little significance to those of us with good health, but for someone confined to a bed, totally dependent on the presence of another person, this is a remarkable thing.
And while George’s mind and hands have created what we’ve lovingly called the “Lift King” it’s really been the co-operative effort of several people who’ve participated in its creation. By a series of coincidences, George met with Ray Basniki, a Barrie man who’s dad suffered ALS. Ray called to place an ad in the Super Shopper; George’s wife Judi took the ad; they got talking, found they shared the sorrow of ALS… George and Ray got together to discuss a lifting device Ray had developed for his father.
George then used the base of Ray’s idea, and measured out John’s bedroom, hallway, bathroom, complete with angles, door frames, hall widths, ceiling heights. He then chalked the measurements on the garage floor and started to work, designing an “engine” from a war surplus motor retrieved from Princess Auto, 2 12-volt batteries, a boat winch which is linked by a bicycle chain. Ryan Pollock of Unistrut in Barrie’s south end customized George’s need for steel track, bent it and angled it to meet the needs of John’s condo.
The track has to be self supporting; the condo ceiling has the wiring and heating system for the unit above in its drywall and studs, and George didn’t want to interfere with that. The motor, which is activated by a single button, has a winch with a hook on the end that picks John up by his harness and allows him to be moved in relative comfort through doorways and along halls. But… another problem… the track goes also through the doorways, so George found a couple of old doors which he refinished and cut down so the bathroom can still have a closing door, as can the bedroom. Should something happen that the motor needs charging (which George is accommodating with a simple, inexpensive battery charger) the entire thing has been designed to operate manually with a brace and bit lowering and raising the hook and people power operating the track.
George figures it cost him about 40 hours and $900 to design, build and spray paint the device. When I visited him last week he was just finishing the door alterations and then dismantling the whole system to trailer it down to Burlington. It’s certainly a better device than the standard lifting gizmo that would move John from bed to wheelchair with a $6,000 price tag. Not only was the cost out of reach, but the standardization of the design made it of limited use to John.
I asked George how much figuring it took to get the whole system working and his face lit up. “Well I had a couple of goofs; I had to change the gearing of the motor, and then I found this bike chain. When our washing machine broke down, I was really excited because it gave me a piece of metal to build a cover for the motor, which finished it all off.” (Don’t worry, George had another renovated washing machine standing by)
He said that most of the time was spent planning how the device would work. He’s particularly pleased about rigging up the battery charger and separating the 24 volts so the batteries can be recharged simply and without needing a generator.
Before taking it to his father-in-law, George was testing it himself, swinging himself up and along, down and up again and back along the track to the “bedroom” chalk lines in his garage.
Pleased to say installation occurred over last weekend with tremendous excitement expressed by all involved.
George is a quiet man. John is a quiet man. One can only imagine the conversation that passed between their eyes.