BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - When a fall from a deer stand cost Jim Hardy the use of his legs 14 years ago, the question was not whether he would get back into the woods to hunt, but how and how soon.
Hardy, who was coaching under Tommy Tuberville at Auburn when he was hurt, says he didn't believe most of the wheelchairs available at the time would allow him to go into the woods on his own.
"You, number one, want to help someone like myself get in the woods but you also want to make sure we're safe once we're there and not have a cart turn over on you or your power go out and you're going to be stranded in the middle of the woods," Hardy said of the challenges involved in developing a outdoor-worthy wheelchair.
While pondering this challenge, Hardy was introduced to Amy Green-Santagata and her brother, Brian Green, who had been working on wheelchairs that would allow outdoorsmen, veterans and others go where they wanted and when they wanted.
Hardy, now a professional bass angler, helped test the limits of earlier versions of the Nomad chair and offered recommendations to help refine it. He said he has owned a Nomad for the last five years and that the chair adds an element to life that just cannot be achieved in a regular manual chair.
"I coach high school football and it allows me a lot of freedom to, especially at practice, run up and down that sideline in my Nomad and take off, to where if I was in my regular [chair] like I am on Friday nights, my regular manual chair pushing with my arms, it may take me 20 or 30 seconds to get from one end of the field to the other," Hardy said. "In that Nomad, I'm there in about three."
Hardy's ability to fly around the field seems to benefit his Victory Baptist squad, which has won the Alabama Christian Education Association championship two years in a row.
As opposed to a field or stream, the story of the chair that Hardy helped perfect actually started with someone who was trying to get to the beach.
When Jerry Nasello, Green-Santagata's stepfather, was diagnosed with ALS, he started building a wheelchair that would take him onto the sand at Gulf Shores where he and Amy's mother, Mary, had retired.
Over six years of research and development, designs moved from a PVC pipe frame to steel, to the aluminum-framed chairs that the Nasellos now rent at Beach Power Rentals.
Green-Santagata said she sought and got her mother and stepfather's blessing to take the chairs "to the next level."
"They were hand-building them and bending the aluminum themselves. Someone was building them for them inside a shop and for the mass market I wanted to have something that was true every single time. So I took it to an engineer and we had drawings done professionally so that we could have a perfect frame every single time," said Green-Santagata.
"They look great," said Mary Nasello of her children's work. "They've taken it a lot farther than we have."
Nasello said they rent their 24 chairs at Beach Power Rentals about 600 times a year. She said many of her customers are people who come to Gulf Shores from all over the country, only because they've heard about the chairs. She said she hopes her daughter is eventually able to move to leasing the chairs. But as far as doing the work necessary to bring the chairs to market within a month, Nasello said of her daughter "she's got it going on."
"Today, this is exactly what it needs to be," Green-Santagata said of the Nomad.
Green-Santagata is majority owner of Global Extreme Mobility, which she started two years ago, with her brother, who is responsible for running their shop in Hueytown.
She said she has a patent pending on the chair and has applied for a utility patent.
Another benefit of the Nomad is its customization. When a customer places an order, the Nomad chair can be delivered in a number of different colors within two to three weeks. One veteran wanted digital blue camouflage, for example. The chair can also be outfitted with racks and holders for everything from firearms to bows to fishing poles and even a music and lighting system. A joystick control will send the 1.6 horsepower engine moving with purpose (enough for Hardy to bring home a deer he shot) but Green-Santagata said they try to avoid programming it to go any faster than five miles per hour.
While they can set the speed of the chair, pinning down the size of the potential market can be a little tougher.
"There is not a whole lot of data on the market," said Jim Rimmer, Director of the Lakeshore Foundation/UAB Research Collaborative, and holder
of the Lakeshore Foundation Endowed Chair in Health Promotion and Rehabilitation Sciences.
But Rimmer said what is not in question is that people who have been injured do better if they can get outdoors and maintain social contact.
"If you look at research of people who are outdoors more, they tend to progress better in terms of improving their health," he said. "I can say pretty safely from a research perspective when you keep people in inclusive settings, even after a significant injury like a spinal cord injury, if they're still able to do the things they did prior to the injury, it brings enormous potential health benefits to the individual."
While Global Extreme Mobility has sold more than 40 chairs, Green-Santagata said she'd like to sell enough chairs to be able to donate them to places like Red Mountain Park. The park actually has one chair that was donated by the Birmingham Association of Realtors, whose board members include Green-Santagata.
But Green-Santagata, who is currently making the rounds of trade shows and support organizations, said what is driving her is "need, not greed." She described visiting a trade show earlier this year in Mobile and talking to a woman whose husband was test-driving a Nomad.
"His wife started crying and I asked what was wrong and she said he had been paralyzed just a couple of weeks before in a swimming accident and this was their first time out and this was the first time she had seen him smile since the accident," Green-Santagata said. "That's really what I do it for."