MIDDLEBORO, Mass. — Staff Sgt. Michael Downing claims he can “jury-rig” — or, modify in his garage — anything in order to make living with his severe disability a bit easier.
Downing lost both his legs to an improvised explosive device in 2008 while serving on his second tour in Afghanistan.
In Downing’s garage sits a riding lawnmower with a broom handle attached to the pedal. It’s jury-rigged so that Downing can mow his own lawn.
But there’s one thing in Downing’s custom-built home that is certainly not jury-rigged a new lift system provided by Sure Hands Lift and Care Systems, a New York-based company that builds hoists for the wheelchair-bound, allowing them to do things like get in and out of the bathtub by without assistance.
The $20,000 lift helps Downing get around his bathroom and gives him added mobility on the infrequent days his health issues catch up with him.
Although ambulatory and outfitted with prosthetics, Downing sometimes has difficulty getting out of bed if he’s sick or if he’s simply having a bad day dealing with the lingering pain in his lost limbs. He uses the lift several times a week to get into a hot bath, which his wife described as great therapy.
“Somebody who’s taking care of their wounded veteran should not be worried if their husband can get in and out of bed the whole time they’re at work,” said Downing’s wife, Dawnalee Kielty-Downing.
And the Downing family narrowly avoided having to live with that worry.
“He was turned down by the VA and another source of funding,” said Guard Support Executive Director Sherry Handel.
Guard Support is a nonprofit that assists Massachusetts National Guard personnel in meeting a variety of needs from medical expenses to funding family readiness groups.
“It was just a paperwork, red-tape mess,” Dawnalee said. “I’d be stuck on hold, given the run-around.”
The VA turned down the Downings in 2010, citing Michael Downing’s mobility with his prosthetics. Since he was mobile, the lift was deemed something the VA would not pay for.
State Command Sgt. Maj. David Costa and Adjutant General Maj. Gen. Joseph C. Carter attempted to help the Downings and approached Tri-Care, who also said there was nothing they could do.
“None of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for Sgt. Maj. Costa and General Carter,” Dawnalee said.
After being frustrated by Tri-Care and the VA, Guard Support caught wind of the Downing’s predicament and decided to raise the $20,000 to install the lift.
“It was pretty quick. It was a small group of donors,” Handel said. “A couple of donors were guardsmen and a number of them serve on the (Guard Support) board (of Directors).”
Guard Support started fundraising in December of 2011. The lift was installed in March 2012.
A local, Lakeville-based company did the installation work and did it at a reduced cost. Downing recently hosted Brig. Gen. John Hammond, Costa and other guests at his house to show the lift off.
“It’s something that I believe was needed in this house,” Dawnalee said.
Handel, who also toured the Downing home, said that more people need to be aware of Guard Support and the services they provide.
“If we weren’t told of Staff Sgt. Downing’s need, then we wouldn’t have been able to do anything,” she said. “The more people know about us, the more we can help.”