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Thanks... but no thanks

Block Island resident - and disabled military veteran - Avery Kirby invented a tray insert for his hospital-issued walker after being treated for a stroke at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Providence. The tray allows him to carry items, has a drink holder and a place for his cane. With the help of some islanders and his son, Kirby built 50 trays to give to his fellow veterans at hospital. But the VA won't accept them. This week Jim Hummel finds out why, and travels to the island for a first-hand look at the tray - which has received a patent from the government.



Far from the summertime crowds on Water Street and Old Harbor - you can usually find Avery Kirby here, taking in a beautiful day from the bench at the edge of his workshop. Hummel: ``What is it about Block Island that you like?''


Kirby: ``What is it you don't like?'' Kirby, a carpenter and taxi cab driver who moved to Block Island 30 years ago, had a stroke in 2008 that left him disabled. A military veteran who was stationed in Germany in the early '60s, Kirby was treated at the Veteran's Administration Hospital in Providence. The VA provided a walker for him to take home when he was released.


Hummel: ``Had you ever used a walker before?''


Kirby: ``Never.'' Hummel: ``And how did you find it?" Kirby: ``It's like roller skating or ice skating, once you get used to it, it's no problem.'' Hummel: ``But at the beginning there was a little bit of a transition period, right?'' Kirby: ``Oh yeah, it's like going out with a different woman.'' Kirby, though, found it hard to carry things. So he designed and built a wooden tray insert that stabilizes the walker, and provides a place for his cane, has a drink holder and even a drain plug if he spills something. Kirby: ``See, the other thing with it, by doing it like this, I can make a seat out of it." He dubbed his creation `Independence' and brought it with him on his next visit to the VA. Kirby: ``Every time I go there are these 3 or 4 guys with the walker, they've got the little paper bags or a basket that you can't put nothing in - that's why I tried promoting the tray because you can carry stuff in it.''


Hummel: ``And you went up there with yours?"


Kirby: ``Yes.'' Hummel: ``And what was the reaction?" Kirby: ``The reaction there is the same as everywhere. If you're not talking to handicapped people they could care the hell less. Because the only people that care about this are the people who are really handicapped.


I was there one time and there was an 85-year-old veteran there and he had the walker, and what I did is, this is his walker. I gave him my walker with the tray and he said to me, `It's about time somebody came up with this." Kirby says he was grateful for the care he received, so he approached the VA about using the trays for his fellow vets. At the same time he had Bruce Montgomery - an illustrator and former editor of the Block Island Times - draw up these sketches of the design. Peter Saxon, a retired patent attorney who now lives on the island year-round, was impressed and helped Kirby apply for a patent - which he received this year.


Saxon: ``It came immediately, it was like a revelation, I looked at it and said: `This is something good.'" Montogomery: ``I agree with Avery that you're not into it unless you need it. If you're not....don't have as stroke or don't need a walker, then you're not going to be as involved, certainly, as Avery." Saxon: ``I've been this business, the patenting business, for almost 50 years I've met all kinds of individual inventors. They're all very creative. Avery brings something special to the table. He's a man with a lot of common sense and he's a real salt of the earth person. But he's very intuitive. He saw a problem, he fixed it and he said what can I do with it? I said we can get a patent." Kirby was so excited by the reaction he received from his fellow vets at the VA, he had his son, also a carpenter, make four dozen trays to give out - long before trying to patent it.


Donations of money and material helped cover the cost. Saxon: ``The design is solid. In use, it's solid, it's safe." But not in the eyes of the hospital. The VA says it cannot accept the tray because of liability and safety concerns. A spokesman declined our request for an on-camera interview but in a series of emails said: * The Sensory Rehab and Prosthetics team looked t the trays and said they were not consistent with the manufacturer's guidelines. * They also said wood is a problem because of infection control.


Hummel: ``Do you think going forward plastic or another material would work?" Saxon: ``Yes, absolutely but you could even take these trays, it seems to me, and coat them with a plastic material; that would make them impervious and probably solve all of their problems." Hummel: ``Did it ever cross your mind that somebody at the VA would say well no we can't use this?"


Saxon: ``No, no." In a follow-up email the spokesman painted Kirby as someone trying to make a buck, with the VA's help. ``What you have is a gentleman (Mr. Kirby) who wants to market a product he designed/developed. While I admire his ingenuity…it really has little bearing on our mission at the VA. Truthfully, we get these offers all the time—people looking to market their products through the VA, people looking for contracts to offer yoga, tai chi, etc…I suppose each of these individuals (some are Veterans) could also go to the media and such and cry foul. I wouldn’t entertain these as well' Thomas Antonoccio VA Spokesman Montgomery: ``There was interest at the VA - now the interest may have come from the vets - and not from anyone higher than the vets - but there certainly was interest from the vets and perhaps others at the VA for these trays. And that's part of it, Avery may have gone overboard and produced 50 of them but he didn't do that just because this would be a good idea; obviously someone said something that led Avery to believe that if he produced 50 they would take the 50."


Saxon: ``There's no incentive for them at the VA to do much of anything. They take care of people. They're not interested in innovation.


Although I deal with government officials and have dealt with them for 4o or 50 years and I know the reluctance in embracing new technology.


No one wants to be called on the mat five years later saying why did you do that, and not that?


It's not their investment, it's not their money


they have no incentive to innovate.'' Hummel: ``Is that the problem, nobody wants to take a chance?" Saxon: ``I think that's one of the factors involved, yes, they're afraid of what would happen if something went wrong. What liability would occur, whether their head would be on the mat or not." Hummel: ``What do you think when you see these (trays) stacked up in his garage?" Saxon: ``What a waste, what a waste. I mean if he could even distribute them free to people, just to use, it would be a revelation for anyone who needs who gets around in a walker, this would be a tremendous advance." Montgomery: ``I don't understand why the hospital wouldn't just say `Thank you very much Avery, we'll take it from here.' And then if they have to do something to make them more acceptable, let them do it. I mean Avery, this why he is living, he wants to get this done."


Kirby says it's never been about money - it's about helping his fellow veterans. Kirby: ``I am completely amazed, 'cause I'm not the smartest person in the world. I'm completely amazed - and I mean this - that no one came up with this 100 years ago, never mind today." Hummel: ``If you could send a message to the person making the decisions what would you tell them?" Kirby: ``Wake up. It's very simple, wake up."


On Block Island, Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.