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'The Helper'

David Braaten of rural Sunburg demonstrates the lift he invented to help give people a boost out of a wheelchair. The invention, called "The Helper," won him a gold medal at this month's Minnesota Inventors Congress in Redwood Falls. It was also named the best health care or medical invention and earned the second-place award from Minnesota AgrAbility Project. (Tribune photos by Carolyn Lange)

It pained David Braaten to no end to watch his elderly parents struggle to get out of a wheelchair.

Equally troubling was seeing how physically challenging it was for nursing home aides -- often petite young women -- who used straps or belts and risked back injury to themselves to help people move from a wheelchair to a standing position.

Now, several years after his parents passed away, Braaten has won several top awards at the Minnesota Inventors Congress for a simple, yet clever devise that gives individuals a boost out of a wheelchair.

He calls it "The Helper."

"It'll lift them out of the chair without the straps," said Braaten.

At the invention expo, held earlier this month in Redwood Falls, Braaten was one of four gold medal winners at the two-day event.

His device was also named the best health care or medical invention and earned the second-place award from the Minnesota AgrAbility Project.

When he heard his name announced as a gold medal winner he was shocked, he said.

When he accepted the award and was told he had to make a short speech in front of the crowd that shock "turned into immediate fear," said Braaten with a soft chuckle.

This was the first time Braaten entered the competition. The only other time he'd even been at the Inventors Congress was 30 years ago as a spectator.

Braaten, who owns and operates Mr. B's Auto from his rural Sunburg farm home, repairs and sells vehicles. After thinking about the trouble his folks had with wheelchairs he went to his shop on a Sunday afternoon last summer and "bent some iron and drilled some holes" and attached the mechanism to an old wheelchair someone had given him.

"It's pretty simple. There's not much to it," he said.

He'd initially thought of plans involving motors and batteries but his nephew, an engineer, advised him to keep it simple.

"This is about as simple as it gets," said Braaten, showing how a lever that's pushed down at the top of the wheelchair lifts and tilts a secondary seat cover up several inches. That boost is enough to help people stand up.

"It really does serve a purpose," he said. "What's really amazing is that no one's done it before."

He knows his invention is a little rough around the edges.

"It isn't pretty," he said.

When he saw how polished some of the entries were on the invention and ideas show floor at the 53rd annual Inventors Congress he almost backed out without taking his invention in.

But believing that his idea could actually be used to help people, Braaten entered the competition and came out a winner.

He already has several ideas for improving the plan, like using stainless steel instead of iron, making the lift foot-powered rather than hand-powered, adjusting the pivot to give the seat a better tilt and adjusting the handle so it folds for storage like a wheelchair.

Buoyed by the win, he's initiated a patent search and is hoping his prototype will be noticed by someone who can make the necessary changes to get it on the medical market "so somebody can use it."

His only regret is that he didn't come up with the plan until after his parents had died. "We weren't in time to help them with the chair," he said. But he hopes it will someday be used to help other patients and caregivers.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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