9-year-old receives wheelchair from injured race driver
Axel Maldonado recently got the push in the right direction he so desperately needed.
The 9-year-old Centennial Hills resident was diagnosed at age 4 with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a terminal degenerative muscular disease slowly robbing him of one of his simplest needs -- mobility.
While already facing his physical obstacles, Axel's uninsured parents soon realized they couldn't afford a motorized wheelchair for their son while dealing with medical bills.
But then a former world-champion National Hot Rod Association driver, Darrell Gwynn, rode in to save the day.
Last month, Gwynn's foundation gave Axel a $23,000, custom-made motorized wheelchair.
Axel will continue to use his old wheelchair at school -- he is a third-grader at Fyfe Elementary School, 4101 W. Bonanza Road -- because his parents don't have a wheelchair-accessible vehicle and are unable to transport the new one. But outside school hours, Axel can whizz around on his agile mobile chair.
He can use his new chair around his house and on the field while playing on his baseball team and with other kids playing power soccer, a version of the sport modified for motorized wheelchairs.
His wheelchair is already embellished with stickers, including some racing ones from Gwynn.
Gwynn uses a wheelchair after being paralyzed in a 1990 drag-racing accident. He and his wife started his foundation in 2002 to spread the word about spinal cord injury prevention and help give the uninsured or those denied funds for wheelchairs their independence back, he said.
"My story is totally different," he said. "When I got hurt, I had a wheelchair waiting for me and a van waiting for me. Most people don't have that."
Mo Abusham, owner of Better Life Mobility Center, a California-based mobility store with locations in San Diego, Riverside & Las Vegas, said wheelchairs often carry a high price tag.
"Features like tilt, recline, elevated seating and so on can add up," he said.
Abusham said the company works with customers on an individual basis to assess needs because even insured people sometimes have to pay out of pocket. Most insurance companies affiliated with Medicare don't cover the cost of wheelchairs, he said.
Better Life Mobility Center works with local agencies that link physically disabled individuals with services and items they need to meet their basic needs. One such nonprofit, valley-based Rebuilding All Goals Efficiently, or RAGE, was started in 2005 by Reggie Bennett, an advocate for people with physical disabilities.
He said the number of families in need of equipment such as wheelchairs, handicapped-accessible vans and simple retrofits on their home has grown in recent years. The agency helps about 100 families a year.
"Many consumers don't have the financial means to get the adaptions or modifications they or their loved one needs," he said. "Even if they have insurance, the cost of one item can meet their insurance quota for the whole year. That's when families have to rely on non-profits for help."
He said wheelchairs are especially costly; manual chairs range from about $1,500 to $5,000, and power chairs, such as Axel's new ride, are between $5,000 and $40,000.
Axel was the perfect recipient for a wheelchair, said Gwynn, who joked that Axel's name propelled the association to get the wheels in motion for his new ride.
"It kind of replaced the feeling of winning races by giving these wheelchairs away," he said. "We look for those who have fallen through the cracks or don't have insurance, or insurance is denying them funding. Many times, we are giving them their first set of power wheels."
Such was the case for Axel.
Before getting his wheelchair, which was designed for him to grow into, Axel used a manual wheelchair and relied on his parents, siblings and schoolmates to get around. Now, with a flick of his wrist to the key pad and joystick, he's in motion by himself.
"I am so happy because I can drive myself and decide where to go," he said.
Contact Centennial and Paradise View reporter Maggie Lillis at email@example.com or 477-3839.