It didn’t explode, but lots of bits fell off.
My name is Victoria Curling – or Vicky for short – and I am a Specialist Rehab Engineer.
My job here at the wheelchair service is to modify wheelchairs for individual need.
Probably the easiest way for me to explain what modifications we do here, is telling you an example of perhaps something you know about. Steven Hawkins can only move a small part of his cheek; so how his chair works is, he has a small switch that sits on his cheek and as he moves his cheek it translates as a command to his chair. So someone like myself will set that kind of kit up; we assess the person, find out what they can and can’t do, how do they get from A to B, what kind of transport to they use, do they drive, what kind of things do they like doing, and then adapt their wheelchair to meet their needs.
An abnormal day for me is when everything goes to plan [laugh]: so when everything runs smoothly, everything fits together in the way it’s supposed to, and that we’ve predicted every need that person might have. Bear in mind we only have an hour to get to know this person’s life.
Sometimes we have patients that can’t physically communicate with us, so they can’t talk and all they can do is blink. So trying to get information out of someone when they can’t physically talk to you is very difficult. But that is the big challenge.
Even when I started, I thought a wheelchair was a wheelchair, and you see that one wheelchair when you are out and about, maybe you see it in the entrance into Tesco’s when you walk in: that is one example of the millions of wheelchairs out there. And then it’s not just the wheelchair, it’s all the bits that go on them as well: the 10 different types of backrests you can get, the 5 different types of footplates, and that’s part of my role as well to know all the different bits of kit that go on every single chair.
So if you wanted to become a Rehab Engineer, you’d need to get some good GCSEs, at least 5 A to Cs, you need you’re A-Levels ideally in Maths, Physics and Technology. Then you need to get your Engineering degree. You need to be quite gifted with your hands and willing to sort of take things apart and put them back together again. You definitely need problem-solving. You also need to be very compassionate, a good listener. And then strength wise: patience. I always recommend work shadowing – feel free to contact your local wheelchair service and see whether you can just see what it’s about because that’s the most important thing: you’ve got to figure out whether this is actually the job for you and the only way you’re going to be able to do that is to try it.
The coolest thing that I’ve ever done was a research project that I did in determining how safe chairs were in transport. So I put a chair onto a crash rig and put it through a car crash to see which bits fell off [laugh]. That was good fun!
The main thing that we make a difference about for people who come here is that we essentially give them back their independence and mobility; a 2-year-old, who’s never been able to walk or crawl, the ability to play with their friends, in a wheelchair; or a lady who hasn’t managed to leave her bed in months, the ability to go back to church, go shopping, or see her family.
Yeah! That’s the main reason why we all do it.
A few words from Victoria ...
I am a Rehabilitation Engineer specialising in wheelchairs. I work mainly work with Physiotherapists and Occupational Therapists who assess children and adults to see what type of wheelchair they need. For example, a patient may not be strong or flexible enough to be able to get out of a standard wheelchair. As an RE, it’s your job to design something new, or to adapt an existing design to give a patient a chair they can use easily. Every person who comes along has their own different problems, so no two days are ever the same.
We also design wheelchair seating, taking measurements to find areas of high pressure and reshape cushions to make people more comfortable. We might adapt the programme that controls a powered chair to make it easier for someone to use. You can also get involved in research.
Some of my colleagues work with other types of assistive technology, for example communication aids such as speech synthesisers.
Exciting aspects of Victoria's job
I have put wheelchairs, with a crash test dummy sat in them, on a sled and replicated a 30mph crash into a brick wall just to see if they fell apart….and some of them did….
I put people onto bean bags. The air then sucked out (of the bean bag) to make a mould of the person which is then copied by carving/milling out a block of foam on a big machine. This is then put onto a wheelchair. It works brilliantly for people who cannot sit in a standard wheelchair
Before starting as a Rehabilitation engineer I had no idea there are so many different types of wheelchairs out there. Standard ones are simple and cheap, ones used in wheelchair marathons are light and fast, and then there are ones that are highly specialised for people that cannot sit upright (or “sit” at all!). There also powered wheelchairs, some of which go really fast.
You get paid to take things apart all day. Enough said.
Have you ever wondered how Stephen Hawking drives his power chair or talks with his computer when he can’t move his hands? A Rehab Engineer would have designed and set up a switch on his wheelchair he can operate by moving his cheek. The RE would have also reprogrammed the chair so it works from the switch and accelerates smoothly! So getting to play with powered wheelchairs chairs is my final cool point.
I believe dealing with patients and families is the most difficult part of this role. At times your patient doesn’t really know why they are uncomfortable or why something doesn’t work that well for them and it’s your job to figure it out and provide a solution. Sometimes the patient can even speak making it even more difficult. Trying to develop a solution to problems is challenge enough but trying to figure out the problem when there is a time limit makes it particularly challenging.
- 5 A*-C GCSE’s
- 3 A-levels
- Degree in Rehabilitation Engineering or Engineering and Voluntary register for Clinical technologists (VRCT) diploma