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November 11, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, November 11, 2005

The problem-solver The problem-solver (November 11, 2005)

Inventive Mountain View trainer Don Scheiman revolutionized fitness for the disabled

By Diana Reynolds Roome

"We're all T.A.B. -- temporarily able-bodied -- until we get run over by a truck or have a stroke," said Don Scheiman, a trainer at both YMCA and Gold's Gym in Mountain View. "We don't know how lucky we are that we're healthy."

Though Scheiman smiles, this is no glib throwaway remark to him. He has devoted much of his time in recent years thinking about ways to help people exercise effectively after unexpected events like the bus or the stroke. Keeping fit is a challenge at the best of times, but losing the use of an arm or a leg -- be it through injury or chronic conditions like paralysis or arthritis -- can have fitness consequences beyond the obvious.

Push-ups, for example, are impossible for someone who lacks the use of an arm, which makes it harder to keep pectoral and back muscles strong and evenly balanced. Running, cycling or yoga for aerobic fitness, flexibility and weight control become far more difficult for anyone whose leg cannot bear weight.

Working in his spare time as well as during work hours, Scheiman has come up with some ingenious solutions for these problems. His solutions have improved the lives of war veterans and others, in Mountain View and much farther afield.

One such place is the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where occupational therapists there heard of Scheiman's work and invited him to share his ideas with vets who are recent amputees. Someone else was impressed enough to alert NBC, who produced a segment about his inventions last year, calling him "a veteran with a vision." (Scheiman was in the 82nd Airborne as a paratrooper during the Korean War.)

It all began with a device that Scheiman invented for Louise Baker, a member of the YMCA on Grant Road, who lost her left arm in a water-skiing accident when she was 16. Baker had learned to compensate successfully, but because her right side had to work so hard, the shoulder muscles on that side grew larger while those on the left withered. She experienced pain in her right shoulder from overuse; the imbalance was uncomfortable and was also a risk for scoliosis, a lateral curvature of the spine.

A few years ago, around her 40th birthday, Baker decided she needed to find ways to strengthen her left upper body. She had always been active and now had two young children to care for, a job that required physical strength and agility. But doing isometric exercises while someone held down her left shoulder simply wasn't helping to build those muscles adequately.

"I remember seeing the atrophy -- the scapula and shoulder bone were sticking out," said Baker. "I'd gone to gyms and asked, but they couldn't help."

When Baker joined the YMCA at Grant Road, she noticed that Don Scheiman specialized in adaptive fitness. What she didn't know was that Scheiman's determination and resourcefulness would stop at nothing.

Scheiman had recently completed specialized training at Foothill College, qualifying for a new career at around age 70, and credits his instructor, Dr. Carl Knopf, for teaching him to "think outside the box." Experimenting with different materials to imitate shoulder shapes -- neoprene from old wetsuits, rubber balls from Toys R Us and grapefruit from the supermarket -- he cut, sewed, glued and cemented, all the while considering how his invention could help make the best use of muscles that were still available.

After many versions, he came up with a neat shoulder harness that enabled Baker to connect to various weight training machines with clips, and use the remaining muscles as effectively as possible. Now, Baker comes into the gym three times a week to work on upper body weight machines such as the lateral pulldown, the seated low row and the cable crossover, which exercise vital muscles groups such as rhomboids and pectoral muscles. She and Scheiman together worked on adapting the lateral raise to exercise the medial, anterior and posterior deltoids of her "wing" side (as she calls her left arm stump).

"I'm walking taller, standing straighter and feeling so much better," said Baker, who was a business manager at Oracle before the birth of her children. "My doctors are very happy and pretty amazed. Don is a miracle worker."

The YMCA Board of Directors has patented the Baker Rig on Scheiman's behalf. Others are encouraging him to produce the rig on a larger scale, especially with the increase in amputees returning from war.
New problems, new solutions

After a serious stroke almost five years ago, Carmel Mould's weakened left side was also interfering with her ability to regain fitness. She wanted to use the Bicycle Pro SciFit, but had trouble keeping her foot on the pedal as her leg would involuntarily fall outwards.

Again, Scheiman discovered a solution. Using a piece of PVC plastic, half of a four-inch coupling and some Velcro, he fashioned a bootee that hooks to the top panel of the exercise bike and holds the foot up. For the left arm, he made a device that attaches to Mould's wrist-brace and keeps it on the bike handle. This means that she can do the exercises her doctor and therapist recommend, both on the bicycle and on machines like the triceps arm extension and chest press. She has already moved from one set at 10 pounds to three sets at 15 pounds with the affected arm.

"What I really like is that I can do any exercise that any normal person would do -- not just someone with a stroke," said Mould, who was told not to expect much recovery after severe bleeding in her brain required intensive care at El Camino Hospital followed by a long period of rehabilitation.

"For a while I was very unconfident of my abilities to be on my feet, and relied on my cane more than I needed to," Mould said. "Since I exercised here, I've given up bringing my cane in with me. A year ago I wouldn't have imagined it possible."

Mould's physical therapist comes into the Y to help her regulate the tone in her muscles and make the best use of the exercise machines.

Scheiman is also working with Richard Green, a new member of the Y, who lost nerve endings on his left foot due to spinal surgery and cannot easily lift the foot. Scheiman reckons that if he can help Green strengthen some of the hamstring muscles, this might compensate and make it easier for him to use the recumbent bicycle, which he needs to keep his heart strong after a quadruple bypass many years ago.

Scheiman has refused to accept payment for the materials he uses, much less for his ideas and labor. Instead, Baker makes him stews, and he enjoyed sharing a bourbon with a 102-year-old veteran he helped train in Saratoga. Other perks are similarly modest.

"Why all this works," he quipped, "is that Carmel makes the greatest little cookies."

However, this personalized service may have to change now that his adaptive fitness gear is becoming known and each device costs around $40 to $50 in materials alone.

Through all this recent success, Scheiman demurs, reluctant to take full credit for his inventiveness.

"I'm just glad I can help somebody," he says, pointing out Baker's "excellent form" and Mould's remarkable progress. "They've been an inspiration to me."

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