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Spinal cord injury gives businessman perspective

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Robert Sullivan never seems to stop moving.

This surprises some because Sullivan has had to use a wheelchair since he injured his spinal cord in a motorcycle accident 17 years ago.

“When my customers first see me they ask where my helper is,” said Sullivan. His customers ask because they, too, are in wheelchairs. Sullivan repairs wheelchairs, scooters, lifts, ramps, steering devices and does handicap vehicle conversions.

“Pretty much I can make anyone mobile,” said Sullivan. “Some of my customers are elderly or have multiple sclerosis. I know how it is to rely on a wheelchair for mobility.”

Sullivan does have helpers. His wife Kathy handles the business paperwork and his son helps when needed with the larger work, such as installing lifts in vehicles. But most of the time, Robert is on the road by himself covering a wide area from Hibbing, Minn., to Houghton, Mich., and Rice Lake, Wis.

If not for Sullivan, the only alternative for his customers would be to bring or ship their equipment to a medical supply store, a hardship for many.

Not only customers appreciate his willingness to travel the northland’s rural roads. NorthernBridges, a managed care business that serves low-income elderly and those with disabilities with a hub office in Superior, hires Sullivan as one of its providers.

“Robert is very dependable and responsive,” said Anita Dugan, NorthernBridges care manager. “We’ve had members who have had safety issues with wheelchair brakes and he goes out that day to take care of it. His actions reflect his high integrity.

“There have been times he did not charge mileage because he was already in the area. He understands how important it is for us to be as cost-effective as possible for our members so we can serve as many people as possible. Robert and Kathy truly represent NorthernBridges values,” Dugan said.

Sullivan’s garage-turned-workshop is filled with parts, batteries, and miscellaneous equipment that might look like junk to the untrained eye. One piece of metal is actually a small ramp he had custom built for a customer to navigate over a door threshold.

“When I am at a customer’s home I can make suggestions as to how to make the house better for them,” said Sullivan. “For instance, you can only buy very large ramps so I buy steel in Duluth for the material, then bring it to a fabricators where they cut it to my measurements. These are simple things that make a big difference to someone in a wheelchair.”

Sullivan has also stockpiled used wheelchairs and parts people have donated that he loans out or gives away. Sometimes, a family will give back a chair when it’s no longer needed so it can be used again, he said.

Once a week, Sullivan finds time to work with physical therapy students at Lake Superior College. They learn something from him and he gets a work out.

“It’s a lot of work but with the help of special braces, I can walk about 300 feet in 15 minutes,” he said.

At one time, Robert Sullivan built his own home, hunted, fished and skied. After his accident, he spent three years in a body cast, lost sight in one eye and had to relearn almost everything. He still lives with daily pain but he doesn’t give in to depression and self-pity.

“I didn’t want my kids to see me like that,” said Sullivan. “I didn’t want to focus on what I couldn’t do, but on what I could do.”

He tells this to clients and because of his situation, it works, said Kathy.

“Everything happens for a reason,” said Sullivan. “You can’t let your handicap disable you.”

Those interested in donating wheelchairs or other equipment or parts can call Sullivan Systems at (715) 375-2579.

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