Inventing a better wheelchair

Caryn Eve Murray

December 5, 2004

Arthur Ezra, a lifelong engineer with a long, impressive resume, could not have engineered this part of his life any better if he'd tried.

Ezra, 79, who enjoyed challenging careers in private industry and education before retiring in 1995 from Farmingdale State University of New York, is the co-inventor of a seating system designed to help heal and prevent sores in people who use wheelchairs. The Pressure-Relieving Wheelchair Seating Apparatus, which holds two patents and is moving toward limited production at Maloya Laser in Commack, is the result of a decade's worth of collaboration with a number of professionals, including Mahendra Shah, a Farmingdale professor, and Dr. Lynn Weiss at Nassau University Medical Center.

Ezra, a Calcutta native who lives in Huntington Station, tells Caryn Eve Murray why this project has perhaps been one of the most meaningful he's undertaken:

Did someone in particular inspire you to do this?

Yes, all this began 10 years ago when I was dean of engineering. A gentleman named Perry Cahoon - he was a quadriplegic and kept suffering for years from pressure ulcers on the buttocks, the same thing Christopher Reeve had - he was in his late 50s, a local guy from Massapequa, and he was president of the Cal Quhoun Foundation to help the disabled. He approached the president of SUNY Farmingdale and asked for help in coming up with some kind of seat that allows him to sit up while it also heals. There is nothing on the market for that. There is an old saying from Nietzsche: "He who has a 'why' to live for can bear almost any 'how.'" Perry Cahoon was the personification of that. He spent his waking hours trying to help other disabled people. He was an intelligent and lovable guy.

What is the principle of the seating system?

The seat consists of six slats perpendicular to the thighs. They are cushioned slats, starting from the front. The slats move. The whole seating system is in an aluminum box installed on the wheelchair to replace the seat. Inside the box is an electric motor and control system that raises the slats up and down in sequential fashion, from front of seat to rear in a pattern that simulates flow of blood and lymph. You relieve pressure for eight seconds completely, every 3.5 minutes or less, at every point in the seat, from front to rear.

So you are moving toward production?

We made this as part of a research grant from New York State. Now the Research Foundation of the State of New York is trying to license this in the industry. Meanwhile, we are presenting this to a medical conference in Israel ... on multidisciplinary medical rehabilitation.

What is an inventor's

greatest challenge?

The marketing. There are two big hazards in inventing. The first hazard is, "Will it work technically?" The second hazard is, "Will it sell?" We are dealing with the second one.

Do engineering's problem- solving principles also apply to your everyday life?

Well, I was on loan to the National Science Foundation for two years from the University of Denver and they [NSF] wanted me to stay and Denver wanted me back. So I made a long list - just like an engineer - of pros and cons. There was a long list of why I should go back to Denver and a much shorter list for staying in Washington. I made a decision: I'd go back to Denver. And you know what? I got depressed. So I learned when you have to make a difficult decision, do what your heart tells you. So much for engineering principles and problem solving!

Was it the right decision after all?

Yes, it turned out to be the right decision. I stayed at the NSF for 15 years. I give my kids the same advice. When you can't make up your mind, do what your heart tells you. Even if you make the wrong decision, you don't care; you did what you wanted to do.

What have you learned most from working on the seating system?

I learned to respect and admire the caretakers. Like Perry's wife, she is a registered nurse who married him knowing he was a quadriplegic. These are the people I have such admiration for. And for the people who are handicapped and want to make something of their lives. To me, they are an inspiration. Here I am blessed, thank God, with good health and good education ... and I can do something worthwhile for them, too.